Sentence First – Verdict Afterwards

Sentence First – Verdict Afterwards

A recent criminal case in Metro Detroit reminds me of the wonderful children’s book Alice in Wonderland. In one of my favorite parts in the book, the Knave of Hearts is put on trial for stealing the Queen’s tarts. In the midst of the trial, the Queen emphatically shouts out, “No, no! Sentence first – verdict afterwards.”

Unfortunately, sometimes life mirrors fiction. And such is the case involving the once alleged murder of Farmington Hills attorney Lloyd Johnson.

Within a week of being charged with her husband’s murder, Lloyd Johnson’s widow Laura Johnson left Court a free woman. Although the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office and the swirling media had quickly labeled Mrs. Johnson a murderer, the evidence – or at least the forensic examination by the medical examiner – suggested otherwise. Lloyd Johnson did not die as the result of murder. According to the M.E., his death was accidental.

Oops. Sorry Mrs. Johnson. There isn’t any real evidence you are a murderer. We really did not mean to charge you and seek to hold you for the rest of your life. Sorry for the inconvenience. And with that, Mrs. Johnson was released from jail where she had been held without bond. Within several days, the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office then dismissed all the charges.

How does someone go from being labeled a murderer one day to a grieving widow the next? To those of us that have been part of the criminal justice system for a long time, the answer is simple: some police departments are eager to clear cases, regardless of the facts; and some prosecutors never read a headline they did not like.

In addition, this case highlights a classic example of the unfortunate fact that many times the police and prosecutors work backwards. First, they develop a theory of what happened. Then, they search for the evidence to prove it. Fortunately, the medical examiner put an end to the madness before Laura Johnson spent more time in jail for what appears to be her husband’s accidental death. The implications for innocent people throughout society are obvious.

The public, the media, and those of us in the system, must insist on evidence first and charges second. Otherwise, we will all join Alice living in Wonderland.