A life (without parole) story: Part 1

Aaron Johnson

Family photo

This story is the first in a three-part series published by The Crime Report and Alternet. Parts two and three will be posted on Tuesday and Wednesday.

BESSEMER, Ala. -- The blinding glint from razor wire that girds the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility seems out of place in the piney woods northwest of Bessemer.

Donaldson, the maximum-security home of 1,500 convicted felons, was built in 1980 and is named for a prison officer who was stabbed to death by an inmate in its early years.

The state Department of Corrections website describes its function: "Donaldson specializes in controlling repeat and/or multiple violent offenders with lengthy sentences that are behaviorally difficult to manage, and several hundred inmates sentenced to life without parole."

One of those LWOPs, as they are known in prison lexicon, is Aaron Lamont Johnson, inmate No. 00190394.

In 1994, when he was 19 years old, Johnson was accused of shooting to death another young man in their north Birmingham neighborhood. He was charged with murder and sat through four trials as the chief antagonist of the prosecutor's narrative. Three mistrials were declared when jurors were unable to agree on his guilt or innocence.

He was convicted at a fourth trial and sent away to prison without possibility of parole under a drive-by shooting sentencing enhancement, even though it was the victim who drove up and confronted Johnson in his yard.

Johnson has been locked up for 21 years. If Alabama has its way, and Johnson reaches the average African-American male lifespan of 72, he will have served 53 years in prison for a heat-of-the-moment offense committed when he was a teenage adult.

His story is an example of the enduring after-effects of the politicization of American justice through legislated sentencing mandates. A generation ago, experts say, Johnson likely would have served fewer than 20 years for a comparable crime. Even today, he would be parole-eligible in many states.

Instead, he is caught in the country's lifer bubble, roughly 175,000 strong and growing--a neglected remainder of the lock-'em-up frenzy of the 1980s and 1990s. The number of lifers today is comparable to the entire U.S. prison population in 1968. The racial imbalance is striking: Half of all lifers are black, four times the percentage of African-Americans in the U.S. population.

Yet so far lifers have been excluded from reform discussions, even though the country's long-term prisoners are the core constituency of the methodical mass incarceration that is widely viewed as racist and ineffectual.

"I think violent crime, and homicide in particular, is still off the table politically," said Ashley Nellis, an analyst with the nonprofit Sentencing Project.

Sentencing reforms are focused on the so-called "non-non-nons"--non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders.

"There's a lot of work to be done there, too," Nellis told me, "but it's not going to make a substantial difference in mass incarceration unless we consider the serious stuff, as well."

Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said lifers have been "thrown under the bus" by lawmakers. Ryan King of the Urban Institute added, "It's like we don't want to deal with the problem--and life-without-parolers are the most extreme example."

About 50,000 lifers are serving sentences without hope of parole--roughly the total population of Pascagoula, Miss., Brunswick, Ga., or Grand Island, Neb.

Alabama stands apart--with a handful of other Dixie states--in its enthusiasm for long prison sentences, even as entrenched mass incarceration fuels the state's unremitting financial bonfire.

Alabama's incarceration rate is the fourth highest in the country, just below its Deep South kin, Louisiana and Mississippi, and the national leader, Oklahoma.

Doris Schartmueller, a California State-Chico criminologist who has studied Alabama incarceration trends, said the state built a "permanent" prison population by applying habitual-criminal sentencing add-ons as crime was declining sharply in the 1990s and 2000s.

Since 1980, state prison rolls have grown nearly 400 percent--from 6,500 to 24,250 today (plus another 7,000 in custody outside of Alabama penitentiaries)--while the state population has grown just 23 percent. Alabama prisons operate at nearly double their official capacity of 13,318.

Schartmueller told me that long sentences and the politicization of parole ensure that the state's dangerously overcrowded prisons will stay that way. The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, with members appointed by and politically beholden to the governor, rarely approves discretionary parole.

"Due to these stringent parole practices, you will have a quite high percentage of prisoners who will grow old in prison and eventually die behind bars," Schartmueller said.

Nearly a century ago, Lewis Lawes, the progressive warden of New York's Sing Sing prison, described the soul-numbing monotony of life in a cage: "Death fades into insignificance when compared with life imprisonment. To spend each night in jail, day after day, year after year, gazing at the bars and longing for freedom, is indeed expiation."

Aaron Johnson wards off that existential despair through prayer and a scholar's diligence to his case. He earned certification as a paralegal through correspondence school and fights incessantly from inside Donaldson for exoneration or sentence relief. Neither appears to be forthcoming.

Johnson is a light-skinned black man of average size--5-foot-8, 154 pounds. His body bears none of the usual prison mementos: He is clean-shaven, with closely cropped hair and no tattoos. He is soft-spoken and polite, though this should not be mistaken for a lack of intensity.

"People have asked me over the years, 'How do you decide which case to take on,'" said Claudia Whitman, an innocence advocate who has worked on behalf of Johnson since 2001. "There are a couple of factors. But the main one is the doggedness of the person insisting they're innocent and their willingness to fight to prove it.

"Aaron is the most dogged person I've ever worked with. He's never given up. He never stops."

I have delved into Johnson's life story for nearly a year, speaking with more than 25 people, some with a personal stake and some without. The crux of what Johnson calls his "situation" is this question: After 7,850 days behind bars, how much more punishment does he deserve?

"There are things that impulsive young people, men and women, may do that perhaps shouldn't be the thing that defines their entire life," Richard Cohen, executive director of the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center, told me. "Throwing away the key is synonymous with saying there is no possibility of rehabilitation, no possibility of redemption. And as a country I don't think we ought to say that about people."

I spent many hours talking with Johnson's mother, Dinah Robinson. At one point, I pressed her (yet again) to explain a puzzling detail about her son's life.

"I'm trying to understand...," I said.

She stopped me.

"I know you're trying to understand. But to understand any of this, you have to understand what's it's like to be a young black man growing up in a place like north Birmingham, Alabama," Robinson said.

"And if you didn't grow up black in Birmingham, you'll probably never understand."

Between Right and Wrong

On Sept. 13, 1994, a throng of 1,000 assembled outside the White House for a carefully staged event designed to add gravitas as President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Control and Law Enforcement Act.

The dais was packed hip to hip with some 200 people--a bipartisan mash-up of Washington politicians, police chiefs, cabinet secretaries, mayors, and the kin of crime victims, all of whom seemed to believe that the law was a good idea for America.

Clinton spoke with a preacher's pulpit rhetoric.

"When I sign this crime bill," he said, "we together are taking a big step toward bringing the laws of our land back into line with the values of our people and beginning to restore the line between right and wrong."

Moral transfiguration may have been the goal, but the 356-page legislative behemoth had a carrot-and-stick orientation. It endorsed funding of as much as $30 billion for police officers, prison construction, and other incentives and subsidies for states willing to go along with a federal prod to punish lawbreakers more severely.

Motivated in part by money, most states proved eager to do so, even though crime had just begun a precipitous decline. Hundreds of state and federal laws had already added sentencing enhancements for specific criminal acts, such as drive-by shootings. But Clinton's signature that day in 1994 served to enshrine the lock-'em-up ethos that institutionalized what we now recognize as unprecedented mass incarceration.

The very next day, September 14, Aaron Johnson was hanging out with friends on the hood of a car parked on a grassy siding in front of his wife's family's house on 25th Street North in impoverished north Birmingham, a world away from the White House.

At twilight, a Chevy Monte Carlo rolled to a stop near Johnson's perch. The driver was a neighborhood adversary, Timothy Chester, also 19.

Johnson recalled the sequence of events as we spoke in a small, spare room in the visitors' center at Donaldson prison.

"We're sitting out there talking, just enjoying, you know, the evening," Johnson said. "And he (Chester) pulls up. I don't remember his exact words, but it was something to the nature like, uh, you got a problem with me?

"He just wanted to, how can I say this, agitate and irritate me. But he didn't say nothin' that would let me know where he's comin' from. So I'm like, man, why is you coming to my house with this? What's wrong with you?"

Johnson said he told Chester to leave: "Go on ahead, man.'"

Chester didn't heed the advice, and their beef escalated into violence.

What was it all about? Johnson said, "This whole thing really results from the effects of crack."

'It Was a Scourge'

For a decade beginning in 1985, sections of Birmingham endured the crack-driven crime conflagration that scorched black neighborhoods coast to coast.

The city had 60 homicides in 1984, a 30-year low. As crack arrived the next year, the murder total jumped to 97, up 62 percent. The homicide surge reached 129 or more in each of the first five years of the 1990s.

"It was a scourge," said Vickii Howell, an Alabama native who saw crack's impact while covering courts for the Birmingham News. "It was some kind of cultural shift that happened. There were always drugs, but there wasn't this kind of violence that came with it. It became this 'New Jack City' attitude that killing is cool and you prove your worth by how many people you can hurt or kill."

Aaron Johnson and Tim Chester had been circling one another for months, according to Johnson. Their conflict illustrated criminologist Alfred Blumstein's axiom that young men armed with guns are lousy at dispute resolution. Perhaps in another time and place, a pastor, parent, coach or cop might have interceded and saved two lives. That didn't happen.

They lived in the same cluster of neighborhoods north of downtown Birmingham--Acipco-Finley, Enon Ridge, Evergreen--tucked between rail yards and a manufacturing zone on the west and the city's airport on the east.

Metropolitan Birmingham is a traffic-snarled sprawl of 1.1 million people, nearly a quarter of Alabama's population. But the city itself seems hollowed out. It peaked at 350,000 residents in the early 1960s before white flight began amid infamous white-on-black violence, including 50 bombings, many at homes where African-Americans had crossed real estate lines of demarcation.

Birmingham has shriveled to 210,000 people. Three-quarters of its residents are black, and three out of 10 live in poverty.

Aaron Johnson spent much of his childhood in a particularly destitute precinct known as Evergreen Bottom. Johnson grew up working as a caretaker at his grandparents' group home for the developmentally disabled off Stouts Road there. His mother's parents owned an entire block of property, including several two-story apartment buildings.

Evergreen Bottom is a grim place. Many buildings have been knocked down, leaving vacant lots waist-high with weeds that obscure dumped trash. A brick housing project, several two-story apartment buildings, and many small homes sit abandoned and moldering.

evergreen-bottom-project-3.jpg
Evergreen Bottom in Birmingham, Alabama
David J. Krajicek

Half of the population there earns an income below the federal government's poverty line of $11,770 for individuals. Sixty-four percent of adults living in that ZIP code are not working, and 30 percent have no high school diploma.

Narcotics grew deep roots in Evergreen Bottom generations ago. According to Johnson, a relative's crack cocaine debt was the impetus for his conflict with Timothy Chester.

Johnson's aunt, Mary Lou Robinson, lived in an apartment building that shared an alley with the Evergreen Bottom group home. Johnson said he was carrying trash to a dumpster one day when he stopped to chat with his aunt. They were joined by her daughter, his cousin Mary Ann Green, and Green's 6-year-old daughter, Mesha.

Both his aunt and cousin were crack addicts, Johnson said.

As the relatives talked, Chester and two other men drove pulled up the alley to collect a crack debt from Robinson, Johnson told me.

"Chester hops out the car while we're standing and talking and everything, and he's telling my aunt, like, 'Bring your ass here. Where my money at?'" Johnson said. He said he was upset that his cousin's child had to witness this.

"So I said...'C'mon let's go. Get Mesha out from in front of this stuff.' So Chester hollers something of the nature of, 'Oh, you don't like it? You don't like it?"

"I just said, 'Shit, go ahead on, man.'

"And that's basically where it started from, that incident there," Johnson said. "This is still my family. Even though they're on drugs, we're still family."

For months afterward, Johnson said, he heard gossip that Chester had it in for him.

"I think he was just bluffing," Johnson said. "He wanted to pull me out and see what I would do. In that time period, people wanted to make reputations for themselves. So they'd prey on people they think were weak...He wanted to be famous--street famous. Street cred is what they call it now."

Johnson's wife, Terina, and Chester's girlfriend, Teresa Jones, had their own arguments about the stewing conflict. But Johnson said the two young men had no real confrontations until the evening in September '94.

I asked why Chester had shown up then.

"I really don't know," he said. "I know that people gossip a lot. Someone else may have caused him to do that--you know, like somebody told him that I said something. Anything to just keep up some confusion."

Alone and in Trouble

Dinah Leah Johnson was 15 years old, a freshman at Phillips High School in Birmingham, when she met Aaron Robinson Jr., who was 23.

"It was quite the controversy," she said. "People in my family wanted to have him arrested."

But she stayed with him and got pregnant just after her 17th birthday. During her seventh month of pregnancy, her child's father was sent to prison for five years for burglary.

"And there I was, alone by myself and in trouble, like a scared little rabbit," Dinah Robinson told me.

dinah-robinson.jpg
Dinah Robinson at her home in north Birmingham.
David J. Krajicek

She resolved to make a better life for her son.

"I started to teach him even before he came out," she said. "We talked and talked and read and read. He learned from within. It was just he and I, and we just read our life away during my pregnancy. It was like a journey, you know?"

Aaron was born on Jan. 12, 1975. His mother had dropped out of school, but she earned a GED and took college classes while building a career in health care and office work in Birmingham and, later, Houston.

By the time Aaron's father was paroled, Dinah had moved on.

"After he got out, I was all grown up, and I knew he just wasn't the one for me," she said. "I was doing all right, and we didn't need him. I could take care of Aaron on my own, so I just kept it going, moving ahead."

Aaron Johnson said his mother encouraged him to strive.

"She stayed on me about going to school--about making something out of my life, that I can be anything I want to be," he said. "She would say, 'All you have to do is go to school, read the books, build a work ethic, pray, go to church, and don't worry about the rest of that stuff.'"

I asked Dinah Robinson what she imagined her son might become.

After a long pause, she said, "Well, what I did notice was his leadership abilities in the neighborhood. He seemed to be such a helpful and caring young man. He had some friends who were in trouble, and he helped them in so many ways. If they were failing in school, he would teach them. If they didn't have anything to eat, he would bring them to me and we would feed them. He was just always trying to help, and everybody seemed to look up to him."

She paused again.

"But you know, no matter how you raise them," Robinson said, "it seems they always figure out a way to jump the fence and meet somebody they shouldn't."

David J. Krajicek (@djkrajicek) writes about crime and justice for The Crime Report, Alternet, The New York Daily News and others. His work on this article was supported by The Fund for Investigative Journalism in Washington, D.C.