What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Why defendants plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit

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.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    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.

  • Juan Johnson:

    This is the block I grew up on.

  • John Yang:

    Juan Johnson is back in his old Northwest Chicago neighborhood.

  • Juan Johnson:

    And this is the home right here is where I grew up at.

  • John Yang:

    Where he and older brother, Henry, were raised.

  • Juan Johnson:

    Where I was weak, he was strong. Where I was strong, he was weak.

  • John Yang:

    By all accounts, Juan was the better student, Henry, the better athlete.

    And when Juan got involved in a gang, Henry followed.

  • Juan Johnson:

    He was always the good guy, not me. I wasn't no murderer, but I was not an angel.

  • John Yang:

    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.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    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.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    When Henry showed up to get Juan out on bail, police detained him too. They looked nothing like the witness descriptions of the killers.

  • Juan Johnson:

    They said 5'7", 5′ 9", light-skinned Hispanic males at first. Then they changed it up.

  • John Yang:

    They were picked out of the lineup, convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

  • Juan Johnson:

    I couldn't believe this. It was like a truck hitting you in the chest.

  • John Yang:

    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.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    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.

  • Nilda Moret:

    It was a nightmare, really, because I knew they were innocent.

  • John Yang:

    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.

  • Dan Stohr:

    I had this wealth of material, all these witnesses, but the judges weren't listening.

  • John Yang:

    Even though the money ran out, Stohr kept pressing their case.

  • Dan Stohr:

    They were innocent, and they were trapped. They were buried alive, and they had nobody else to turn to.

  • John Yang:

    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.

  • Juan Johnson:

    He says, "You're coming home. You and your brother are coming home."

  • John Yang:

    A friend broke the news to their mother.

  • Nilda Moret:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    The wait for a second trial gave them a taste of freedom.

  • Juan Johnson:

    We started becoming human again.

  • John Yang:

    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.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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.

  • Dan Stohr:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    Juan and Henry had to choose quickly, certain freedom, but as a convicted felon, or risk going back to prison.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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."

  • He says:

    "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."

  • John Yang:

    Juan turned to their lawyers.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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."

  • Dan Stohr:

    So these two brothers were crying. This was the first time they had not done something together.

  • John Yang:

    Juan had no faith in the system, and no doubt that he'd be convicted again, and that he and Henry would be separated.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    With Henry now a free man, Juan's second trial got under way. His lawyers focused on the cop who investigated the murder.

  • Dan Stohr:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    Juan's trial helped expose a cop who could prove to be one of the most corrupt in Chicago's history.

  • Reynaldo Guevara:

    On the advice of my attorney, I assert my Fifth Amendment rights.

  • John Yang:

    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.

  • Dan Stohr:

    When the jury was out at the second trial, Juan melted down.

  • Juan Johnson:

    I still didn't trust the court. I didn't know these people. They don't know me.

  • Dan Stohr:

    They were out for about two-and-a-half-hours.

  • Juan Johnson:

    They say it was pretty quick, but, in my mind, it was like a lifetime. And they came back not guilty.

  • Dan Stohr:

    He put his head down on the table and he started crying.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    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

  • Jon Loevy:

    The criminal justice system is imperfect. And when it does make mistakes, the stakes are very, very high.

  • John Yang:

    It was big news when a jury awarded Juan $21 million, at the time, the largest payout in Chicago history.

  • Jon Loevy:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    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.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    He didn't want to be on camera. Why is that?

  • Juan Johnson:

    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.

  • Nilda Moret:

    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."

  • John Yang:

    Now, seeing all the exonerations connected to Guevara, Stohr is preparing an appeal to overturn Henry's conviction.

  • John Yang:

    What do you hope the exoneration will do for Henry?

  • Dan Stohr:

    He doesn't think that people believe that he's innocent. And an exoneration would take the weight off his back.

  • Juan Johnson:

    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.

  • John Yang:

    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.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest