Terrell Johnson found not guilty on all charges: Only minutes before the close of court on Wednesday, September 12, a jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all three charges in the 18-year-old case of Commonwealth v. Terrell Johnson, causing the defendant and his family and supporters to burst into tears of joy. Terrell had spent more than 17 years in prison after being convicted of the 1994 murder of Verna Robinson. The jury found him not guilty of first degree murder, retaliation against a witness, and criminal conspiracy.
The close of the case brings an end to the relentless efforts of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office to frame Terrell for a crime that he did not commit, using evidence that had been incredible and insufficient since day one.
After the prosecution rested last week in the case of Commonwealth v. Terrell Johnson, the only fact definitively proven was that Verna Robinson was shot twice in the head and murdered in the early morning hours of July 22, 1994. Relying on the testimony of two witnesses with serious credibility problems, prosecutor Russell Broman attempted to portray Terrell as a member of an alleged gang known as the Hazelwood Mob who gunned down Verna to prevent her from testifying against him in a simple assault case.
Terrell’s conviction in 1995 hinged on the testimony of one witness, Evelyn McBryde. When she testified last week she told a story that differed in significant respects from earlier versions, as she now claims she saw Terrell shoot Verna, which she had never testified to before.
Perhaps most harmful to her credibility was the 18-page criminal record dating from the mid-1980s to 2009 that involved repeated instances of criminal activity, including bank fraud, endangerment of children, retail theft, and prostituting her own children. Terrell’s attorney brought to the jury’s attention Evelyn’s thirteen aliases from her FBI file, four different social security numbers used, and four dates of birth. McBryde has received favorable treatment from the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office ever since she first came forward as an alleged witness in this case after being arrested committing retail theft with her young children in 1994. At the time, prosecuting attorney Kim Berkley Clark intervened and asked other jurisdictions to drop charges against Evelyn at the time that she was the prosecutor’s witness in Terrell’s first trial.
Several police officers were called to bolster the prosecution’s case. Lt. McQuigan testified that she took down a report of Verna Robinson’s that a man named “Ralph” had assaulted her at the end of April 1994. The prosecutor then blurted out “Ralph” followed by “Rel”, suggesting that the name Ralph was actually the latter half of Terrell’s name. Lt. McQuigan was unable to testify as to how Terrell became a suspect who was eventually charged in the simple assault, agreeing with defense counsel that Verna’s description of a six foot young black male with a mustache was “generic.” Lt. Herrmann then also testified that he was involved in bringing simple assault charges against Terrell, though he could not determine how he became a suspect.
The victim’s mother, Barbara Robinson was called to testify as well. In August 2010, after Terrell had twice refused a plea offer that would have allowed him to walk out of prison for time served, Barbara Robinson signed a new statement that contradicted her past statements to police, testimony at three trials, and conversations with journalist Bill Moushey. During a break in her testimony, Barbara Robinson was instructed by a woman attending the trial that she should testify that she was afraid to come forward in the past in order to explain why her story had changed. It is unclear if the woman who coached her was a part of the prosecution team, with the state Office of Victims’ Advocate, or had some other role. After this conversation Barbara re-took the stand and alleged, for the first time, that she had been afraid to come forward in the past.
Several of the defense’s witnesses refuted every aspect of Evelyn McBryde’s testimony. Dinah Brown told the jury that Evelyn was not in her apartment prior to the shooting as she had claimed. Carol Smith testified that the gate in her front yard was locked, which would have made it impossible for Evelyn to enter through it and hide behind the bushes, which is where she claimed she witnessed the shooting from. Finally, Skinny Robinson testified that Evelyn was at his home at the time of the shooting, trading sexual services for drugs in the basement of his home.
On Monday afternoon, Terrell Johnson took the stand for the first time in 18 years to answer the charge that he murdered Verna Robinson. During the shooting, Terrell had been at a friend’s house where he ended up staying the night. The following morning he found out that Verna had been killed and that the police wanted to question him since he had been implicated in a simple assault charge against her, which he claimed was a case of mistaken identity. Upon learning that police had been looking for him, Terrell turned himself in for questioning. Terrell testified that police reports he had seen indicated that the police had corroborated his alibi. He was not arrested until seven months later, after Evelyn McBryde had implicated him. He also turned himself in when he was charged, thinking that this was a mistake and would be cleared up quickly.
18 years later, a definitive chapter in this saga has closed. Terrell Johnson remains in state custody after the trial pending being “processed” out of the prison he was held at.
This victory represents a resounding testament to the power of faith and family, and it would not have been possible without the steadfast determination of Saundra Cole, Terrell’s wife, who tracked down the new evidence that led to the re-trial, inspired others to help organize press conferences, teach-ins, rallies, and community events, and together with Terrell raised and maintained a caring and supportive family throughout this trying but transformative struggle.