NORFOLK, Va. - A Norfolk man sentenced to 132 years for a 1997 armed robbery is getting help from the University of Virginia Innocence Project to clear his name.
"The case certainly had a number of red flags that we often see in wrongful conviction cases," said Jennifer Givens, the clinic's legal director.
A Norfolk jury convicted Messiah Johnson of the December 1997 robbery of Recas Hair Salon on 35th Street.
Witnesses said two men with their faces partially covered barged into the salon on a busy night. One of the robbers had a gun. They forced the owner, employees and customers to the ground as they stole cash and took off. No one was killed or injured.
Weeks later, the salon's owner spotted Johnson at a restaurant and identified him as one of the robbers. Soon, Johnson was in handcuffs.
"Your heart just goes into the pit of your stomach," said Mildred Johnson, Messiah's aunt.
While Johnson did have previous run-ins with the law, he maintained his innocence in the Recas Hair Salon robbery. He had an alibi confirmed by three people. His family also noted that Johnson had a well-paying job at the time of the robbery.
Additionally, there was no physical or DNA evidence that connected Johnson to the robbery. Johnson denied a plea deal that would have given him three years in prison for the robbery and opted for a trial by jury.
The first trial against Johnson ended in a mistrial, but the second ended in a conviction. Jurors sentenced him to several years on each the 24 charges connected to both robbers responsible for the crime.
"How do you explain that your family is doing 132 years?" said Johnson's cousin Tomas Johnson. "The first thought that comes in people's minds is what did he do?"
News 3 uncovered letters written by jurors to the judge after sentencing who felt the punishment did not fit the crime.
One juror, who said she was certain Johnson was guilty, wrote "Due to the way the Commonwealth's attorney structured the charges, I have anguished over the fact that Mr. Johnson will be in prison for the rest of his life."
"I can't just leave you in jail to rot and die," said Toscina Johnson, Messiah's cousin, who brought the case to the attention of the UVA Innocence Project.
"The only thing that connected him to this crime were two eyewitness identifications that were highly suspect," said Givens.
Givens said their attorneys tracked down the real robber, Robert Humphries. Givens said Humphries, who is already behind bars, was a suspect in similar robberies in Norfolk around the same time as the Recas Hair Salon robbery.
"[Humphries] confessed to it and said Messiah Johnson had absolutely nothing to do with it, and he signed a statement attesting to that," Givens said.
Tuesday afternoon, Johnson's attorneys will go before a judge and present their evidence, hoping it will be enough to start the process of setting Johnson free.
"All along I have kept faith and trusted that God would deliver him," said Mildred Johnson.
Fred Asbell, the owner of the salon who identified Johnson as the robber, stands by his statement and maintains Johnson committed the crime.
News 3 reached out to the Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney's Office about the handling of Johnson's case and a representative said they had nothing to add about the case or sentencing.