Philadelphia, PA – Longtime Pennsylvania prisoner Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson, age 69, was ordered released today after five decades in prison, 37 years of which he spent in solitary confinement. Johnson had been convicted in the 1970 murder of Jerome Wayfield, when he was just 18. The Conviction Integrity Unit of the Philly District Attorney’s Office recently identified evidence that the sole witness against him, 15 years old at the time, was beaten by police for hours until he agreed to incriminate himself and Johnson.
Johnson was represented in court today by Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm that has been working to secure his release. In a statement, Grote said “we are grateful to the Conviction Integrity Unit that Mr. Johnson is finally able to return home to his family. When I first met Mr. Johnson I promised we wouldn’t stop fighting until we brought him home. Today we fulfilled that promise.”
Pennsylvania state prosecutors agreed with the determination of Philly DA Larry Krasner’s office that Johnson’s original conviction should be overturned, citing interviews with Wayfield’s surviving relatives who said they supported his release.
Philadelphia Judge Scott DiClaudio agreed to nullify Johnson’s original conviction in the 1970 murder case, saying he believed the sole witness Gary Brame, known as ‘Ace’, “was coerced when interviewed in such a manner that the circumstances of the information provided to the police and the jury…could cause the court to hesitate as to the veracity of the witness.” DeClaudio described the role of Brame’s coerced testimony as “serious misrepresentation to the jury…that went unchecked.” Johnson was arrested and charged in 1970 by Philadelphia cops working under then-police chief Frank Rizzo, notorious for encouraging corrupt, brutal and racist practices amongst his officers.
After entering a new guilty plea today to the lesser charge of 3rd degree murder, Cetewayo Johnson is set to be released today or tomorrow once cumbersome logistics allow him to be processed out Pennsylvania’s prison system. The 10-20 year sentence imposed by Judge DiClaudio in the new lesser guilty plea is over 30 years shorter than the amount of time Johnson has already spent in prison.
One obstacle holding up Johnson’s release even though Judge DiClaudio ordered him to be “immediately released” is the fact that the text of the out-of-date 1970 murder statute he was charged under was not readily available to court staff filling out the necessary forms.
Passing family, friends and supporters of Johnson mingling in the hallway as he left his courtroom at lunchtime, Judge DeClaudio said that Johnson’s release was delayed because the court couldn’t find the 1970 murder law, and would have to “pull a book off the shelf” in order to complete filings.
“It’s not gonna be anytime soon… they can’t even find the section of what the crime was 51 years ago.. when i pled him today there’s a certain section they have to pull up on the computer so they can send the order up…nobody knows where the section was, so we’re trying to call up to Harrisburg… to go find a book off the shelf to see what the sub-section was of homicide in 1970.”– Judge Scott DiClaudio, Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas
Early in his incarceration, Johnson became politicized via friendships with political prisoners like Joseph “Joe-Joe” Bowen, a combatant in the Black Liberation Army (BLA), and Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a member of the Black Panther Party and the BLA.
Johnson attempted to escape prison three times – in 1979, 1984 and 1987. The 1979 attempt allegedly involved using improvised weapons and restraining a guard he had incapacitated inside a cell. Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections (DOC) cited the escape attempts as recently as five years ago to justify holding him in prolonged solitary confinement.
In 2016, the Abolitionist Law Center represented Johnson in a lawsuit which successfully forced prison officials to stop holding him in solitary confinement after doing so for nearly four decades. Solitary confinement is classified as a form of torture yet is still used as a routine punishment in US prisons.
Saleem Holbrook, Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center, was once incarcerated alongside Johnson at SCI Greene. Holbrook told Unicorn Riot that Johnson’s case was “personal” for him because “Cetewayo was one of our mentors and elders.”
“He was legendary within the system for his resistance – 38 years in the hole, and he stood tall. When prisoners… went in the hole, Cetewayo used that as a university. They isolated him, they wanted to use him as an example to us, like ‘don’t be like him’… but Cetawayo’s personality and his resistance was just so infectious that a lot of us younger guys looked up to him.“
“What was really impressive was that influence he had. He pushed us in the right and positive direction. He easily could have, had he been into the prison culture, pushed us into a more negative direction… Cetwayo pushed us into a direction of self-improvement, self-development, self-determination – study our history, study the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, and more importantly, prepare ourselves for freedom.“– Saleem Holbrook, Executive Director, Abolitionist Law Center
Holbrook said that winning Johnson’s release was a “victory, it feels good, but it’s also bittersweet because we didn’t get justice” by exonerating him from all charges, with Johnson settling for the compromise of a guilty plea to lesser charges whose maximum sentence he has already served. “We got freedom for him, but I’ll take that.“
Cetewayo Johnson’s cousin, Julie Burnett, told Unicorn Riot that Johnson was “like a brother” to her and that she’s missed him since his arrest in 1970, when she was just 4 years old: “I’ve been writing [him] letters since I knew how to address envelopes at about 5 or 6.” She’s been visiting him in prison for decades (“it’s like a way of life for me“), most recently on her 55th birthday this last July.
Burnett, who lost another brother when he died in prison in 1990, said she “always had hope” that Johnson would someday be released – “I was told never to give up on family.” She said that in spite of the “cruel and excessive punishment” of extended solitary confinement, her cousin “was a mentor to me over the telephone” and supported her through the loss of other family members when she was young. When Judge DiClaudio ordered Johnson released, Burnett described herself as “bursting at the seams with joy and thankfulness to God for allowing this to happen… I can tell other people that there is hope, there’s a chance…where there’s hope, never give up.”
UPDATE – Wednesday evening: After some confusion about the time and place of his release, Arthur “Cetawayo” Johnson was finally freed at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in northeast Philadelphia.
Update: After back & forth about exactly where/when he'd get out, Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson was released after 51 years in prison & reunited w/ his friends and family this evening outside the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (CFCF) in NE Philly.— Unicorn Riot (@UR_Ninja) August 12, 2021
📷: Abolitionist Law Center pic.twitter.com/0MUju6G49D