ATLANTA – A Georgia man says he was frightened into pleading guilty for a murder he didn't commit after police dangled him off a bridge three decades ago, brought charges against his parents and threatened him with the death penalty.
Timothy R. Johnson was 22 in September 1984 when police arrested him and charged him in the killing of a Warner Robins convenience store clerk shot during a robbery. He pleaded guilty in December of that year — even though he says he didn't commit the crime. He was sentenced to life in prison.
In 2006, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned Johnson's conviction, saying there was nothing to indicate he understood his right not to incriminate himself and his right to confront witnesses.
It took seven more years before he was finally tried and was able to make his case before a jury, which found him not guilty on all charges.
He filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Monday alleging Warner Robins police officers and Houston County sheriff's deputies arrested him without probable cause and participated in malicious prosecution against him. During his 29 years at Georgia State Prison and in the Houston County jail, he was placed in a cramped, windowless cell in solitary confinement for at least part of the time and was given little access to exercise or interaction with other people, the lawsuit says.
At the state prison, he suffered beatings once or twice a week by a group of guards known as the "goon squad," the lawsuit says.
"It was like being in a bad dream, except you know you're not dreaming," Johnson said.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan said she could not comment on the alleged conduct. Houston County Sheriff Cullen Talton, whose office oversees the county jail, said he hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment. Other local officials made similar remarks or didn't return calls.
The lawsuit makes claims including cruel and unusual punishment, due process violations and malicious prosecution. It asks for a jury trial and seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
About 100 miles south of Atlanta, Warner Robins is home to Robins Air Force Base.
Johnson says he was awakened at 3:30 a.m. one day in September 1984 by officers banging on his door. They arrested him on murder and armed robbery charges in the killing of Taressa Stanley several hours earlier.
Johnson says he had been at a friend's house with six or seven other people at the time of Stanley's killing, but his court-appointed attorney didn't investigate his alibi. He was later told that an initial suspect, a high school classmate he hadn't seen in several years, had identified him as the shooter.
He was put in solitary confinement in the Houston County jail and later forced out of his cell by officers, who took him to a bridge and dangled him over the edge, the lawsuit says.
"At some point, I just got so scared that I thought maybe I was having a heart attack or something," he said.
His parents were charged with hindering the apprehension of a criminal even though he didn't live with them and hadn't seen them in several days, Johnson said.
Fearing for his life and for his loved ones, Johnson pleaded guilty in exchange for prosecutors dropping the possibility of the death penalty, the lawsuit says. Once Johnson entered his plea, the charges against his family members were dropped.
Now 53, Johnson revels in spending time with his parents, grateful they're still alive. He also marvels at how different everything is and admits to struggling sometimes with his cellphone.
"I'm feeling blessed to be out here," he said.