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How An Innocent New Haven Youth Spent Decade In Prison

Everybody knew Bobby Johnson was no killer. His friends, his mother, his nine siblings and the other Black teenagers who hung out with him on the corner in front of the deli knew he was innocent. “When I first came here,” Johnson said of the near decade he spent incarcerated, “a lot of older guys from my neighborhood were yelling at me: ‘Why you in here for something you didn’t do?’” When he was exonerated in 2015, the daughter of his alleged victim agreed that he was innocent. “The Other Side of Prospect,” by Nicholas Dawidoff, tells the story of how a manifestly not-guilty 16-year-old confessed to the murder-robbery of an elderly Black man in the Newhallville neighborhood of New Haven, Ct., blocks from where Johnson lived. It’s the story of how the justice system handed a good kid a 38-year sentence, of which he served nine years before a skilled, obsessive defense attorney got him out. Johnson reentered society grateful but overwhelmed, and when the book ends he is still looking for meaningful work, and for meaning. Dawidoff, who grew up in New Haven and returned to live there in middle age, has written a great book, says the Washington Post in a review.

On Aug. 1, 2006, Herbert “Pete” Fields, 70, was shot in his parked car. Fields was a respectable, middle-class sort, not a victim of gang violence or a neighborhood beef; his was not a murder that could be left unsolved. The police fixed on Johnson and his friend as the culprits, while a far more likely suspect with a vicious rap sheet and a clear connection to the murder weapon, and whose good friend’s palm print was found in the victim’s car, was not questioned. Dawidoff reconstructs the Johnson interrogation, in which a big, tough homicide detective browbeat a confession out of the terrified, confused youth. Dawidoff’s portrait of prison life, its pointless mix of boredom, sadness and stress, is a corrective to sensational television fare. Johnson got lucky when lawyer Ken Rosenthal took his case on appeal. Rosenthal found enough exculpatory evidence that the prosecutor asked to vacate the conviction. Dawidoff follows Johnson for five years after release, a disjointed, dispiriting period. Even with a hefty settlement from the state, Johnson had trouble finding his way. There were jobs and women, but no real life. That’s how the book ends. Johnson wasn't a gangbanger, rather an unsupervised boy who was “just around.” In a place like Newhallville, Dawidoff writes, that made it easier for police “to assume you were involved in a serious crime, and more difficult for you to prove you weren’t there. Because you were always there.” Why was Johnson on the corners, when peers were reading or at practice? One theme is fatherlessness; everywhere Johnson goes, the absence of fathers is a real presence.


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