Overturning a Wrongful ConvictionPosted by admin on 11/23/09 • Categorized as Fall/Winter 2009
Dan Stohr’78 and the story-beneath-the-story of Juan Johnson
By K.C. Johnson’89
Juan Johnson stood in front of the television cameras last June, talking about what it was like to serve 11½ years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
A jury had just awarded him what some legal reports claim is the largest settlement for a wrongful conviction in the country’s history—$21 million.
And still, smiles were scarce.
“The back story is pain and suffering on Juan’s part and staring at ceilings in the middle of the night on my part, questioning myself and wondering what to do next,” says attorney Dan Stohr’78. “That’s the story beneath the story.”
These words from Stohr make the Evanston, Ill., native sound dramatic and serious when, in reality, he is anything but. Over the course of a lunch interview near his Chicago residence, Stohr routinely reveals his self-effacing humor.
It’s no stretch to say such an approach perhaps was mandatory to survive an 18-year odyssey that even Hollywood might reject for implausibility.
“I think taking things personally and adding some determination made up for a lack of talent,” Stohr says, poking fun at himself.
Johnson’s take on Stohr is a little more serious: “He’s a family member.”
In 1989, Chicago police arrested Johnson and his brother, Henry, and charged them with first-degree murder following the death of Ricardo Fernandez in a gang fight.
Gang members at the time, the brothers were convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison following a nine-month bench trial in 1991. According to court records, Johnson’s lawyer at the time—who later was convicted of solicitation of murder and incarcerated—did virtually no investigation before the trial.
The state’s evidence consisted solely of testimony from three eyewitnesses who just happened to be from Fernandez’s gang, a rival gang of the Johnsons’.
Once incarcerated, the Johnsons hired Stohr off a recommendation from a friend who said Stohr, who attended Chicago’s Kent Law School following Beloit, specialized in appeals and wrote good briefs. Needless to say, the Johnson brothers’ opinion of lawyers didn’t rank very high at the time.
“We were highly skeptical because of our first experience,” Johnson says in a phone interview. “I kept him at a distance. I thought he was another lawyer who was into it for the money.”
Stohr dispelled this stereotype with dogged determination and sleepless nights.
“I pretty soon on discovered a lot of evidence,” Stohr says. “For instance, the murder weapon was a 4-by-4 board, and it had never been tested. I had it tested.
“Later, I had a Perry Mason moment during the post-conviction petition. One of the co-defendants who had been acquitted admitted beating the victim to death.”
Nevertheless, the drama—and the work—didn’t stop.
First, the trial court refused to hear the post-conviction petition. Eventually, the state’s appellate court reversed the trial court’s verdict based on newly discovered evidence showing that a police detective had coerced witnesses to falsely implicate the Johnsons. Further, several eyewitnesses testified that the victim had been beaten by Hispanics. Henry and Juan Johnson are African-American.
Stohr finally earned his chance for the trial court to hear his post-conviction petition. But despite the introduction of substantial new evidence, including a microscopist who testified that he tested the alleged murder weapon and found no blood on it, the trial court rejected the post-conviction petition.
“That was a low point,” Stohr says.
So why did Stohr continue to fight?
“It never occurred to me not to,” he says simply. “Juan and Henry were clearly innocent.”
At some point along the way, Johnson’s money ran out.
“Dan would come to ‘The Pen’ and all he’d talk about was the next brief he was going to write,” Johnson says. “I would say, ‘Dan, I don’t have any money.’ He would say, ‘Don’t worry about that’ and just keep talking about the case.
“I don’t like getting something for free. But I had to swallow pride because you’re not in jail alone; your whole family is in there with you figuratively.”
Stohr brushed off a question about when Johnson stopped paying him.
“Oh, I don’t know, a long time ago,” he says. “But that was beside the point.”
After originally working one year as a public defender, Stohr served as a criminal defense lawyer on his own for years. But he knew this case needed help, so he reached out to friends at a powerful local law firm that performs pro bono work.
Several Jenner & Block attorneys joined Stohr and the Johnson brothers’ fight. In May 2002, the appellate court overturned the brothers’ convictions and ordered a new trial. Henry and Juan Johnson, both of whom earned college degrees while in prison, were freed on bond in November 2002.
“A lot of lawyers would let their pride get in the way when he asked for help,” Johnson says. “Jenner & Block presented basically the same brief Dan got overturned on, but with their name on it, it got done.
“This guy uses his law degree to try and help social wrongdoings,” says Johnson of Stohr. “I don’t want to pump him up too much, but he’s his own little skinny superhero. He could’ve given up on us. But he didn’t.”
Indeed, Stohr continued to work with Jenner & Block attorneys through a jury trial that returned a not-guilty verdict for Juan in March 2004 and then the civil case that resulted in the $21 million award. The city of Chicago is appealing that verdict.
Meanwhile, Juan Johnson is reunited with his wife, proud that his daughter attended college and enjoying time with his grandson, Braylon, who turned 1 on Oct. 7.
“It’s easy to fall into the lunacy of the penitentiary and there were times my brother and I thought about giving up,” Johnson says. “But Dan kept fighting.”
All these compliments surely would embarrass Stohr, who seems to specialize in aw-shucks comments. He jokes about getting his first gray hair during the ordeal. He laughs about thinking how law would be a fun career until he realized “it’s responsibility, and who wants responsibility?”
But then, for a second, he turns serious.
“Juan’s an extraordinary guy,” Stohr says. “He’s super smart and well-liked and trusted by everybody. He got involved in gangs earlier. But the more talented and solid people rise to the top.”
Stohr speaks from experience.
K.C. Johnson’89 is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who covers the Chicago Bulls and the NBA.