Montell Johnson is Home!
On August 25, 2011, Montell Johnson came home after 13 years in Illinois prisons. He suffers from advanced chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. He is almost completely paralyzed – he can only move his right arm and his head a little. He can’t talk or do anything else. He is fed through a tube into his stomach. His mother, Gloria Johnson-Ester, takes care of him full time.
Why was Montell Johnson in prison?
On May 16th, 1994 Dorianne Warnsley was brutally murdered in Decatur, IL. Although the state’s attorney’s office received signed confessions from two other individuals, their main suspect Montell Johnson. The two confessed murderers agreed to testify that Montell had ordered them to commit the crime in exchange for reduced sentences. Montell Johnson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
Already sentenced to life in prison in California, Johnson was brought to Illinois to stand trial for the murder of Warnsley under a macabre executive agreement between California and Illinois. According to this agreement if he had not received the death penalty in Illinois, or his execution was barred for any reason, he would be returned to prison in California to serve a life sentence. This grotesque agreement, signed personally by then Illinois and California Governors Jim Edgar and Pete Wilson, carries the stench of the sickness that is capital punishment in the United States.
Guilty until proven innocent
Montell maintained his innocence in the Warnsley case, choosing to represent himself at the trial. This was probably a mistake. He had also represented himself in the California trial at which he was convicted for another crime for which he also maintains his innocence. At his trial in Decatur there was no jury, only a judge. The confessed murderer testified against him. He realized the cards were stacked against him; the victim was a pregnant white woman and he is a Black man. He and Warnsley had been very close. Without the resources to discover evidence to support his claims he soon lost the hope that he would win his case. He told the court, “I would rather be executed than spend my life in prison.” The court obliged and sentenced him to death.
When Gov. George Ryan emptied Illinois’ Death Row in January, 2003, instead of commuting Johnson’s sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole as he did in most of the cases, the Governor sentenced him instead to 40 years, with a possibility of parole in 20. He stated that it was because there were so many questions about his conviction and sentencing.
Terry Hoyt, was Dorianne Warnsley’s mother. She knew how close her daughter and Montell had been when she was alive. She pleaded with Gov. Ryan to free Johnson. She reminded the governor that another man had confessed to the murder, and had received only 15 years in jail in exchange for testifying against Johnson, and that a third person who was an accessory received no sentence at all.
Sentenced to a life of torture
But none of these questions concern what happened after the sentencing. The sentence actually carried out on Montell Johnson has been a sentence of torture. This is because the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) bureaucracy has no room for a case like Johnson’s. He suffers from advanced stage chromic progressive multiple sclerosis. His maltreatment in prison gave him malnutrition, ducubutis ulcers (bed sores exposing his bones), and Hepatitis C. In spite of his severe medical condition, the rules required that he be held in a maximum-security prison.
He can neither stand nor walk, yet Johnson was designated a “High Escape Risk” by the IDOC. Although he received medication appropriate for MS at Menard Correctional Center he did not receive the physical therapy he needs. Menard was not equipped to provide it.
The Alliance and Montell
The CAARPR became aware of Montell Johnson’s plight in 2005, at a meeting of the Long Term Prisoner Policy Project, a coalition of which we are a part. This coalition has since formed itself into the Alliance for I – 11, referring to Article I Section 11, the Illinois Constitution Bill of Rights which states, “All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” Our immediate objective was to obtain legal counsel that could seek a court order requiring the IDOC to provide him appropriate care and his release to his mother’s care.
On July 25, 2007, suit was filed on behalf of Montell Johnson and his mother in U. S. District Court in Chicago by Harold Hirshman, Terrance Norton, and Camille Bennett of Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal (since merged with SNL Denton) seeking his release to the custody of his mother following a complete medical evaluation. The suit alleged that Johnson’s imprisonment and the failure of the IDOC to care for him constituted cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
Pressure from State Representative Connie Howard and others convinced the IDOC to transfer Johnson from Menard to Pontiac Correctional Center, and then to Dixon CC, Illinois’ “hospital prison.” While visiting him at Dixon his mother noticed that he had terrible bed sores. Prison medical staff had failed to turn his paralyzed body every two hours as had been ordered by the doctor. They were found to have actually falsified the records to suggest that they had been turning him. Johnson’s sores were so deep his bones were exposed. They became so severely infected that he almost died. He was finally taken to a hospital in Dixon for emergency care. After a series of court sessions, orders by the court, and trips back and forth to the hospital in Dixon and the University of Illinois in Chicago, Johnson spent months at the Kindred Hospital in Chicago, where doctors and Mrs. Johnson were able to partially repair the damage done at Menard, Pontiac and Dixon. In September 2008 he was transferred to Sheridan Correctional Center where a special care plan was instituted, monitored by the court.
Then, in October 2008 Gov. Rod Blagojevich commuted Johnson’s sentence to time served. That should have ended his ordeal in prison, but such was not to be.
However the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (CDRC) by this time had heard about Gov. Ryan’s commutation of his death sentence and Gov. Blagojevich’s commutation of the rest of his sentence to time served. They wanted Johnson back. In February 2009, Judge Robert Dow, to whom the case had been assigned in the Federal District Court, held a hearing on the demand by the CDRC to return Johnson back to California, in spite of his condition. Johnson’s attorneys maintained that the CDRC has been proven to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment already in Federal Court there, for its failure to treat prisoners with severe and chronic medical conditions (see Plata v. Schwarzenegger,http://www.caed.uscourts.gov/caed/Documents/90cv520o10804.pdf). The state system has been placed under court receivership. Nonetheless, the case regarding California was referred to the federal court in that state, leading to more delay in releasing and properly treating Mr. Johnson.
Finally, after years of back and forth negotiations, the IDOC and the CDRC, California agreed to release Johnson. Then there months of back and forth negotiations between the IDIOC and his attorneys regarding arrangements for his care. Finally, on August 25, 2011, he went home to his mother’s care.
People can send messages and greeting to Montell Johnson care of the Alliance at [email protected] or 1325 S. Wabash Ave. Suite 105, Chicago IL 60605.