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Two brothers wrongly convicted of murder were granted a new trial, but then they faced an excruciating decision: plead guilty to a lesser crime and go home as convicted felons, or risk trial and the chance of going back to prison. John Yang reports in this story produced by students at the University of Maryland’s Capital News Service, in collaboration with Injustice Watch of Chicago.
It turns out that trials are increasingly rare in today's broken justice system. About 95 percent of all felony cases end with guilty pleas.
Defendants more often than in the past accept deals to avoid risking more serious charges and penalties at a trial, even if they didn't commit the crime.
As John Yang reports, plea bargains can have long-lasting consequences.
This story was produced by students at the University of Maryland's Capital News Service, in collaboration with Injustice Watch of Chicago.
This is the block I grew up on.
Juan Johnson is back in his old Northwest Chicago neighborhood.
And this is the home right here is where I grew up at.
Where he and older brother, Henry, were raised.
Where I was weak, he was strong. Where I was strong, he was weak.
By all accounts, Juan was the better student, Henry, the better athlete.
And when Juan got involved in a gang, Henry followed.
He was always the good guy, not me. I wasn't no murderer, but I was not an angel.
They both dropped out of school and started families, but stayed close to home, until the police arrested them.
After leaving this house, Juan and Henry would soon again be living under one roof, a maximum security state prison. They'd been convicted of the same crime that they didn't commit.
Their story is the tale of how, 30 years after being wrongfully imprisoned, Juan is an innocent man in the eyes of the law, and Henry is an admitted murder.
It began in 1989, when Henry was 21 and Juan 19.
I was sitting on the porch with my girlfriend when a friend of mine came running down the street.
He just asked me come down there to break up a fight. When he told me what was going on, I thought it would be a simple thing. Go down there five minutes and come right back. It turned out not to be that.
Juan and Henry had tried to break up the street fight, but they gave up and went home. They didn't know it, but a man was brutally kicked and beaten to death that night.
I came out that next morning. And that's when they called and came to me for a lineup. I was actually shocked when I heard someone died that night.
When Henry showed up to get Juan out on bail, police detained him too. They looked nothing like the witness descriptions of the killers.
They said 5'7", 5′ 9", light-skinned Hispanic males at first. Then they changed it up.
They were picked out of the lineup, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
I couldn't believe this. It was like a truck hitting you in the chest.
On their very first night, Juan and Henry faced the harsh reality of a maximum security prison. Inmates were on lockdown. A prisoner had been killed.
Someone else gets stabbed. They put us on lockdown for three months. We come out of lockdown. In less than one hour, someone gets hit in the head with a pipe.
To this day, Henry is unable to talk about his time in prison. Over the years, Juan and Henry's mother, Nilda Moret, saved money to visit as often as she could.
It was a nightmare, really, because I knew they were innocent.
Determined to get their convictions and prison terms thrown out, the brothers changed attorneys. They fired the one who represented them at their trial and hiring Dan Stohr. Stohr found witnesses the first lawyer never even looked for. He began filing appeals.
I had this wealth of material, all these witnesses, but the judges weren't listening.
Even though the money ran out, Stohr kept pressing their case.
They were innocent, and they were trapped. They were buried alive, and they had nobody else to turn to.
The brothers sat in prison for more than a decade. Two courts rejected their appeals, before a third threw out their convictions based on the new witnesses. Juan and Henry would be released on bond while awaiting a new trial. Stohr called with the news.
He says, "You're coming home. You and your brother are coming home."
A friend broke the news to their mother.
I jumped up, and I started screaming and hollering, trying to get both of them, hug them. And I say, you knew they were coming home? He says, yes. I said, you should have told me. I could have cooked for them.
The wait for a second trial gave them a taste of freedom.
We started becoming human again.
And then, as the new trial was about to begin, Juan and Henry faced an excruciating decision. Prosecutors offered them a deal, plead guilty to the lesser charge of second degree murder, and they could walk free. Juan and Henry knew they hadn't killed anybody, but they also knew they wanted to be home.
Just plead guilty, and you can go home with your family. You can live the rest of your life. Don't worry about it. It's done. And that's hard to turn down.
It seems crazy that an innocent person would plead guilty. But when you have been pushed around and ground down, that may seem like the best choice.
Juan and Henry had to choose quickly, certain freedom, but as a convicted felon, or risk going back to prison.
And I looked at him and told him, "I love you, but you have got to make the decision on your own. I can't live with that decision."
"I'm going to take the deal. I'm sorry. I'm going to take the deal."
He started instantly apologizing to me. I said, "Henry, you don't have to apologize to me."
Juan turned to their lawyers.
And I told him I wasn't going to take the deal. Henry tried to tell him instantly right after that: "I don't want to take the deal now too."
I said: "No, no, no, no, no. You already told them you're taking the deal. Don't change it up because of me."
So these two brothers were crying. This was the first time they had not done something together.
Juan had no faith in the system, and no doubt that he'd be convicted again, and that he and Henry would be separated.
I'm worried about my brother being free without me. He's worried about me going to the penitentiary without him, because I knew what the penitentiary did to him. And I knew how it changed him. He can hide it from a lot of people. He can't hide it from me.
With Henry now a free man, Juan's second trial got under way. His lawyers focused on the cop who investigated the murder.
We actually argued that the brothers were framed, that this wasn't a case of mistaken identification, that they were framed by the Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara.
Juan's trial helped expose a cop who could prove to be one of the most corrupt in Chicago's history.
On the advice of my attorney, I assert my Fifth Amendment rights.
In the last two years, at least 11 others have had their convictions tossed out. The jury got Juan's case after hearing four days of testimony.
When the jury was out at the second trial, Juan melted down.
I still didn't trust the court. I didn't know these people. They don't know me.
They were out for about two-and-a-half-hours.
They say it was pretty quick, but, in my mind, it was like a lifetime. And they came back not guilty.
He put his head down on the table and he started crying.
And I looked at the jury, and I looked over at them, and I just started mouthing, thank you, thank you, thank you. These total strangers believed me.
Enter Jon Loevy, a top Chicago civil rights attorney. He took the city of Chicago and Guevara to federal court to get damages for Juan in a wrongful conviction suit
The criminal justice system is imperfect. And when it does make mistakes, the stakes are very, very high.
It was big news when a jury awarded Juan $21 million, at the time, the largest payout in Chicago history.
It's not an unfair amount of money to lose. To lose your 20s and your 30s like that, and spend it in a place that can really only be fairly characterized as hell, you wouldn't trade $20 million for what happened to him.
The story might have ended here, both brothers reunited with their families, Juan spending time with his daughter and grandsons, healing through therapy, help Henry declines.
Everyone knows that I gave him some of the settlement. They think he should be happy, I should be happy. Money can't heal. Money can't get me back 11.5 years without my daughter. Money can't heal my brother. We tried. I tried. Money can't heal it.
He didn't want to be on camera. Why is that?
Henry doesn't think it's good to do any good. He says, "I'm the dummy that took the deal. You always been the smart one. I have just been a dummy."
He says, "I am the dummy" over and over and over.
Henry is going through hell now. He comes over here. He will sit there. He will just literally start crying. So, Juan told him — I say you got to — Juan told him, "You got to talk about it."
Now, seeing all the exonerations connected to Guevara, Stohr is preparing an appeal to overturn Henry's conviction.
What do you hope the exoneration will do for Henry?
He doesn't think that people believe that he's innocent. And an exoneration would take the weight off his back.
While I have a little bit of hope in the system working, my brother has no hope. He believes that the people are going to hear a sad story, feel bad, and go back about their lives and not do nothing.
I'm trying to do what got me through the penitentiary, stand up, even if it hurts. I'm hopeful it might help. Do I believe it is? To be continued.
Two brothers imprisoned for a crime they didn't commit, one cleared by the courts, but unable to rest until the other is too.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Chicago.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
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