NORFOLK, Va. – There is credible evidence a Norfolk man sentenced to die in prison for robbery is innocent, and while he was freed after serving two decades in prison, he still has 24 felonies on his record. Now, Messiah Johnson is hoping Governor Ralph Northam will grant him an absolute pardon before leaving office Friday to clear his name for good.
“The last thing to make this complete is to fully exonerate me,” said Messiah Johnson during an interview with News 3 investigator Jessica Larche. “I've maintained my innocence since day one.”
Former Governor Terry McAuliffe pardoned Johnson before his term as governor ended in 2018. In the decree that set Johnson free, McAuliffe said “credible evidence exists that support Mr. Johnson’s claims of being innocent”. Because the pardon came as McAuliffe was leaving office, it was passed on to Governor Northam’s administration to grant Johnson an absolute pardon. However, last week, Johnson’s attorney with the Innocence Project received a letter from state leaders that the decision will now be deferred to Governor-Elect Glen Youngkin’s administration.
“If Messiah cannot be absolutely pardoned, then it's a really sorry state of affairs for the criminal justice system,” said Innocence Project attorney Deirdre Enright. “[Messiah] is the face of this whole movement.”
A News 3 investigation in 2017 revealed that despite a suggestive show up identification by the Norfolk police department, a lack of DNA or physical evidence connecting Johnson to the crime, and a confirmed alibi for Johnson’s whereabouts the night of the robbery, Johnson was sentenced to 132 years in prison for the 1997 robbery of a beauty salon. When the Innocence Project took on his case several years ago, they also learned another man already incarcerated for robbery, Robert Humphries, admitted to the crime. The evidence led to Johnson’s conditional pardon in 2018. Johnson and his attorneys hoped it would make getting an absolute pardon during the Northam administration all but certain.
“You’re home, and then there's a ‘but’ at the end of that conversation,” said Johnson. “There is no finality to it. We're still, I’m [still] fighting with the system to prove my innocence.”
Johnson and Enright said they applaud Governor Northam’s history-making decisions to pardon 700 people during his term, many with stories like Johnson’s. They just hope the governor will levy one final measure of justice before time runs out.
“Since day one I’ve wanted to be vindicated,” Johnson said.
The remaining felonies on his record have prevented Johnson from securing an apartment and finding well-paying employment. However, he’s worked to overcome the challenges. Last year, he saved enough money to purchase a home, where he and his fiancé hosted Thanksgiving dinner with his family. Johnson also created his own trucking business. He hopes the next chapter of his life will include an absolute pardon from Governor Northam.
“I ask that they grant the pardon during this administration so that I can continue moving on with my life,” Johnson said.