Gathering for Alabama death row inmate Toforest Johnson draws 400 people

By: - April 17, 2023 10:55 am
A church with pews filled with people on the bottom and a balcony above. The walls feature stained glass.

A crowd of more than 400 people gathered at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham on April 16, 2023 to learn more about the Toforest Johnson case. (Ralph Chapoco/Alabama Reflector)

More than 400 people attended an event in support of Alabama death row inmate Toforest Johnson Sunday, hours before his attorneys filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The gathering at Highlands United Methodist Church in Birmingham was the latest in a series of events dubbed the Toforest Johnson Banner Tour that began in May 2022, meant to raise public awareness for his case and how he ended up on death row.

“I thought that it was very vital that people learn about the case but also gather to better understand how to support Mr. Johnson getting a new trial,” said Elliot Spillers, manager of the Toforest Johnson Banner Tour.

Spillers was the emcee of a program that featured some of Johnson’s most ardent supporters. This included Scott Douglas, executive director for Greater Birmingham Ministries, one of the organizations who helped organize the gathering, along with former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley; Johnson’s attorneys, and members of his family.

“I want to take a few minutes and talk to you about Toforest Johnson’s case,” said Katherine Moss, one of his attorneys.

Johnson was convicted in 1998 of the 1995 shooting death of Deputy Sheriff William Hardy. Hardy, who was working an off-duty job as a security guard for a Birmingham hotel, was shot and killed while investigating a noise in a parking lot.

Johnson, who maintains his innocence, was arrested a few hours later along with five other individuals. Three were later released.

“There were no eyewitnesses,” Moss said. “There were no fingerprints, and no gun was ever found. In the coming weeks the detectives, struggling to solve this case arrested and charged five different Black men for this crime, despite the fact that the physical evidence showed there was only one shooter.”

Toforest Johnson
Toforest Johnson (Alabama Department of Corrections)

Each had separate trials. At each trial, the state alleged that each of the defendants was the person who shot Hardy even though there was only one perpetrator who committed the crime.

The jury had acquitted the other individual and that left Johnson. He was tried for Hardy’s murder.

“At his trial, the state presented a completely new witness against Mr. Johnson, a woman named Violet Ellison, who claimed she overheard a three-way phone call from the jail, in which the man on the phone said his name was Toforest and confessed to the murder,” Moss said.

The witness had never met Johnson, or heard his voice, and the state’s entire case rested on the words of the witness.

There was no physical evidence linking him to the murder, and a jury was unable to reach a decision in a trial in 1996. But at a second trial, Johnson was convicted. Following the conviction, Johnson’s attorneys learned that Ellison claimed $5,000 from the state in reward money.

That payment has been key to Johnson’s post-conviction appeals, known as a Brady claim. Johnson’s attorneys argued prosecutors withheld that information, which could have been used to challenge Ellison’s credibility. His attorneys first appealed to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, claiming prosecutorial misconduct, but the court ruled against him.

His attorneys are now appealing that ruling to the Supreme Court of the United States, requesting a new trial.

Baxley became familiar with the case after his son, who is also an attorney, asked him to review the case because he believed there were issues. Baxley reluctantly agreed after some coaxing, and after a while, sat down and began reading through the materials.

“I could not believe that what I was reading happened in the Alabama criminal system,” he said.

There was no physical evidence and the state presented multiple theories of the crime. Johnson also had an alibi. He was across town with multiple witnesses attesting to that fact.

This case has earned notoriety after several people, including current District Attorney Danny Carr and the trial attorney, have advocated for the case to be retried.

“If he has fair representation in the next trial, I am convinced that he will be free,” Douglas said.

Attorneys for Johnson filed their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday morning. The brief argued Johnson’s interpretation of the case, and noted that the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office and the original prosecutor have joined in calls for a new trial.

“One might expect a defensive reaction from the office and the individual accused of violating a capital defendant’s constitutional rights,” the brief said. “Yet here, both have requested that Johnson’s conviction be vacated based on a litany of problems, including the facts of the Brady claim before the Court.”

Updated at 12:32 p.m. with information from the U.S. Supreme Court filing. 


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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.