Court denies new trial for Alabama death row inmate

Published 9:47 pm Friday, December 16, 2022

The Alabama Supreme Court on Friday denied a new trial for a death row inmate in a case that has seen the district attorney, former state attorney general and a former chief justice join calls to reexamine his conviction.

Justices rejected Toforest Johnson’s appeal of a lower court decision denying him a new trial. The request was one part of an ongoing effort to overturn the conviction.

Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1995 killing of Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff William Hardy while Hardy was working off-duty security at a hotel.

Johnson’s lawyers had argued he was due a new trial because the state failed to disclose a key prosecution witness was paid a reward several years after testifying. The Court of Criminal Appeals in May ruled that Johnson’s attorneys had not established that the witness knew about the reward or was motivated by it.

Johnson’s lawyers will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. They also have a separate new trial petition before a Jefferson County judge based on the district attorney’s concerns about the conviction.

Danny Carr, the current district attorney in the county where Johnson was convicted, in 2020 filed a brief with the court saying Johnson should get a new trial “in the interest of justice.” Carr wrote that he took no position on Johnson’s innocence or guilt but said he had multiple concerns about the case.

He wrote that his concerns about the conviction include the reward issue and that alibi witnesses place Johnson in another part of town at the time of the shooting. Carr said the original lead prosecutor had also expressed concerns about the case.

The key prosecution witness at the 1998 trial testified that, while eavesdropping on a phone call, she heard a man she believed was Johnson admitting to the crime. She was paid a $5,000 reward in 2001.

Former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, former Chief Justice Drayton Nabers, and several former judges and prosecutors submitted briefs to the circuit court, or wrote editorials, supporting a new trial for Johnson.