In a windowless basement courtroom, Bobby Johnson recounted how he confessed to killing and robbing a 70-year-old man in Newhallville—testimony he hopes will get him out of prison.
Johnson (pictured), who’s 23, took the stand Tuesday in a habeas hearing in Rockville Superior Court. Johnson is suing the state, alleging that he is being wrongfully held for a 2006 murder that he both confessed to and pleaded guilty to committing. He’s currently serving a 38-year sentence.
Johnson, who was 16 at the time of the murder, contends that New Haven cops coerced a false confession out of him and convinced him to plead guilty to murdering 70-year-old Herbert Fields on Aug. 1, 2006. He’s suing for a new trial on claims of “actual innocence” and a violation of due process.
Johnson’s attorney, Ken Rosenthal, argues that not only is his client innocent, but police have ballistic and fingerprint evidence pointing to the guys who actually killed Fields.
Attorneys for the state are arguing that the cops got it right the first time: Johnson pulled the trigger. On Tuesday, under cross examination by attorney Adrienne Maciulewski, Johnson admitted to contradicting himself several times in his testimony.
Johnson’s case involves a former New Haven police detective, Clarence Willoughby. Johnson’s attorney claims Willoughby threatened, manipulated, and lied to Johnson and two other teens in order to make arrests in the Fields murder, while ignoring evidence pointing to the actual culprits—including a man who showed up dead a month later, with the gun that shot Fields on his person.
Johnson’s suit again brings up allegations of misconduct by Detective Willoughby, who was found not guilty of nine charges of forgery and larceny in 2009. Willoughby is currently being sued by a man named Ernest Pagan, who claims that Willoughby sought to pressure witnesses in a murder case against him, a case that he beat.
Johnson’s testimony Tuesday also raised the perennially vexing question of how far police should go to elicit confessions from suspects. Is lying to a suspect simply a way to force guilty people to come clean? Or can it scare innocent people all the way into wrongful prison sentences?
On Aug. 1, 2006, Fields was parked in his car on West Ivy Street in Newhallville. According to witness accounts—as described by Sgt. Brian Donnelly, who testified on Tuesday afternoon—two people approached his car from both the passenger and driver’s side. The person on the driver’s side shot Fields, killing him. The two people then leaned into the car, as though taking something from inside, and then fled east on West Ivy Street and turned right to go south on Dixwell Avenue.
Police later found a palm print belonging to Richard “Bo Bo” Benson on the driver’s side of the car, according to documents filed by Rosenthal.
In his testimony Tuesday morning, Johnson explained how he heard about the murder, then ended up in prison for it.
Johnson showed up in court in a grey sweatshirt, baggy khaki pants, handcuffs, and ankle chains. During breaks in the hearing, he laughed and chatted with some of the dozen friends and family members who sat in the gallery. Johnson’s 38-year-old mom, Angela Johnson (pictured at the top of this story), has eight kids and is pregnant with twins.
At the time of the murder, Johnson lived on Willis Street in Newhallville with his mother. He had no criminal record. According to a brief submitted by Rosenthal, Johnson had an IQ of 69 and was “barely literate.”
Here’s what Johnson said happened, under direct examination from Rosenthal Tuesday:
On Aug. 15, 2006, two weeks after the shooting, two cops showed up at his house and asked him to go down to the station. They asked him about where he had been when Fields was killed. He told them he had been at Visels pharmacy on Dixwell Avenue, not far from West Ivy Street. He’d been hanging out with his friend Kwame Wells-Jordan. He saw all the police cars and walked down to the crime scene to take a look, then went home.
Johnson later heard on the street that a man named Larry Mabery had committed the murder, but he didn’t tell cops that. Mabery was not a man you crossed.
“I didn’t want to put my family in danger,” Johnson said. “He was known to be very violent.”
Johnson also heard that a guy known as “Bo Bo” was involved in the murder.
On Sept. 3, 2006, cops showed up at Johnson’s house again. Detectives Willoughby and Michael Quinn took Johnson down to the station.
“They said that they knew I did it,” Johnson recalled. “I told them I didn’t do it. … They said I could get the death penalty.”
The detectives offered him a deal: 10 years of probation if he confessed to the crime. They told him he’d never see his family again if he didn’t cooperate.
“They said they got my fingerprints on the car,” Johnson recalled. “They said people said I was there. … I tried to leave but they wouldn’t let me. … I decided to cooperate and tell them what they wanted to hear.”
Johnson said he started creating an account of what had happened, following the cops’ lead. “It felt like a rehearsal,” he said. “I started telling them a little story and they would correct me along the way.”
Johnson told the cops he’d shot Fields outside the car. They corrected him: He was inside the car. He said he shot him multiple times. Nope: Just once.
The detectives showed Johnson pictures of someone he didn’t know and of his cousin, Michael Holmes. They told him they knew Holmes had been there.
Eventually they turned on a tape recorder and Johnson made a confession. He told them he got a gun from Holmes. After he shot Fields, he ran east on West Ivy, then turned left to go north on Dixwell, he said.
The detectives brought Johnson home again. Following their instructions, he didn’t tell anyone what had happened at the police station. “I felt like it was handled.”
Then on Sept. 15, 2006, Johnson was sitting on a porch on Bassett Street when a police car pulled up. Four cops emerged, put him in the back of the car, and took him to the station.
“They told me I was lying, that I needed to fix my statement, or the deal was off,” Johnson recalled. “They told me I got the gun from Larry and that Michael never had the gun.”
Larry Mabery, known as “Little Larry,” had been shot and killed Aug. 31. He was found dead with two loaded guns on him, one of them a .45. At the time, he was a suspect in three murders—including the Fields murder. Ballistics evidence showed that his .45 killed Fields.
On Sept. 15, cops told Johnson he had change his confession to include Mabery and his friend Wells-Jordan. One of the cops became aggressive. “When he was yelling, the spit was actually in my face,” Johnson said. The cops said he had to cooperate or never see his family again.
After more “rehearsal,” detectives turned on a tape recorder and Johnson said he and Holmes and Wells-Jordan had decided to rob somebody, walked to Mabery’s house on Dixwell Avenue, borrowed a gun, then shot Fields on West Ivy Street.
“I felt like I had no other choice,” Johnson said. “They was harassing me. They wouldn’t leave me alone.”
The detectives charged Johnson with murder. He was appointed a public defender, who advised him to accept a plea bargain for 38 years in prison. He pleaded guilty on July 17, 2007.
After Rosenthal questioned Johnson Thursday, state’s attorney Adrienne Maciulewski began cross-examining Johnson, and quickly pulled out a number of inconsistencies in his story.
Maciulewski led Johnson to admit to contradicting himself numerous times, including about what the police had told him about the Fields murder and what evidence they had, and what he had told them about his whereabouts on the day of the murder.
Johnson admitted that during the 2007 trial of Wells-Jordan, he had testified to lying to the police right from the start. Maciulewski pointed out that Johnson’s stated fear of vengeance from Mabery didn’t make sense, given that Mabery was dead by the time Johnson talked to cops.
Johnson admitted that he had a history of trouble in school and often had to be suspended for behavioral problems. He said he did not remember threatening to hit an attorney during the trial of Wells-Jordan, although a court transcript indicates he did so.
Wells-Jordan, who was also arrested for the Fields murder, was expected to take the stand on Wednesday. Wells-Jordan beat the murder charge against him, thanks in part to Johnson, who testified at that trial that Willoughby had coerced a false confession out of him.
During a break in Tuesday’s proceedings, Johnson’s mother Angela said Johnson was always “very naive.”
“He’s very trusting,” she said. The cops convinced him to confess, she said. “They just got over on my son. That’s what they did.”