As the daughter of humanitarian and boxer Muhammad Ali, I have been fortunate to meet extraordinary people from all walks of life—especially during my work reforming the criminal legal system. As I celebrated my father’s birthday on January 17th, I thought of one such person: Lorenzo Johnson. I first became aware of Lorenzo after he published an article in the Huffington Post titled “From the Ring to the Courthouse: The Fight of my Life.” Lorenzo talked about how his time as an amateur boxer prepared him for the years he spent in prison fighting a wrongful conviction after he was arrested for simply being near the scene of a 1995 murder in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. While incarcerated, Johnson wrote dozens of articles in HuffPost on the wrongful conviction of himself and others. Lorenzo’s words resonated deeply with me. On his blog, Johnson quoted my father as a source of inspiration and repeated my dad’s call to “rumble, young man, rumble.” It’s no mistake that Lorenzo and I met and are now fighting together.
While reading the articles, I thought about my father, a world champion in the ring, having the most challenging fight of life outside the ring when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. My father was vindicated when the United States Supreme Court set aside his conviction in 1971. But, unlike my father, the Supreme Court handed Johnson a crushing blow: the court chose to uphold Lorenzo’s conviction despite his clear innocence. Lorenzo’s options to appeal are now closed—which means it’s now up to Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro to fix this clear injustice and pardon him.
After listening to Lorenzo and getting to know him, I have decided to join his fight. Lorenzo Johnson was wrongfully convicted twice in Pennsylvania. He is a two-time cancer survivor, a father of three, and the Senior Advisor for the CUNY School of Law’s Second Look Project, which helps wrongfully incarcerated people gain their freedom back. He is one of the most inspiring people I know and has become a part of our family.
It’s time for Governor Shapiro to right these wrongs. This nightmare of injustice must end.
I’m writing this article hoping that Lorenzo’s case is brought to Governor Shapiro’s desk and Lorenzo receives the pardon he deserves. I support Lorenzo’s innocence and am committed to fighting with him until justice is served. Together, we’ll continue to rumble.
Lorenzo was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, and sentenced to life without parole in 1996. Despite being convicted for a murder he was adamant he did not commit, Lorenzo did not give up hope. He did what he always did: fight. In 2011, the United States Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Lorenzo’s sentence and ordered him released based on his claims of prosecutorial misconduct and innocence. After 16 years behind bars, Lorenzo was free and home with his family.
Once released, Lorenzo spoke nationwide at colleges and other venues about wrongful convictions. He fell in love and got engaged. He started preparing for the adventures life had to offer and the opportunities he would make. Like my father, the young man rumbled and emerged from the ring victorious. Or so he thought.
Unfortunately, Lorenzo had won the round but not the fight. On the first day of a job he started thanks to the Deskovic Foundation—which helps wrongfully incarcerated people—he received a phone call from his Philadelphia-based attorney, Michael Wiseman. After 148 days of freedom, Lorenzo received news that the United States Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’s ruling and ordered Lorenzo to return to prison for life. On June 14th, 2012, Lorenzo turned himself back into the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to live the rest of his days as an innocent man in prison.
But Lorenzo continued battling. His legal team found multiple pieces of new evidence the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office withheld that backed Lorenzo’s innocence claims. The lead detective on the case was a god-brother of the prosecution’s main witness, but the state did not disclose this fact at trial. The State’s chief witness had also been named a suspect in the murder just days after the killing. The state withheld this evidence for 19 years.
After almost four years of delays and stall tactics, a judge granted an evidentiary hearing on claims that prosecutors committed misconduct and withheld exculpatory evidence. But, before the court date, the prosecution met with Lorenzo’s defense team and told them that, regardless of the hearing’s outcome, they intended to fight the case back to the United States Supreme Court, a process that would take multiple years while Lorenzo remained incarcerated. They offered Lorenzo a choice: contest the case or plead guilty to lesser charges and walk out of prison immediately.
So Lorenzo made the bittersweet decision to take the offer. He refused to plead guilty and instead pleaded “no contest” to the lesser charges. (A “no contest” plea means that Lorenzo accepted the prosecution’s charges but still maintained his innocence.) After nineteen years of fighting, Lorenzo chose to return home to his family. Lorenzo found freedom—but not justice.
After reading Lorenzo’s articles, I had the opportunity to meet him. I had one question for him: “How did you find it in yourself to turn yourself back in to serve a life without parole sentence after you were released?” He said he could do so because he knew he was innocent and, in the end, believed truth would prevail. He told me he was inspired by my father’s words whenever he submitted a new petition to the court. Until Lorenzo finally clears his name, there’s still another round or two left in this fight. But now, I’m sticking in his corner with him.