The Ed Johnson Project: The Exoneration Of Ed Johnson

Thursday, April 15, 2021
Rendering of the future Ed Johnson Memorial
Rendering of the future Ed Johnson Memorial

Work is proceeding to complete the Ed Johnson Memorial adjacent to the south side of the Walnut Street Bridge near where he was hanged.

This is from the Ed Johnson Project:

When a mob of angry white men hung Ed Johnson on the Walnut Street, they didn’t just take his life. They also took away his opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his habeas corpus petition and determine if Johnson’s trial and conviction was just and fair.

(A habeas corpus petition can only be filed for a person in custody.)

For nearly 100 years, Ed Johnson’s wrongful rape conviction and death sentence remained on the legal record in the state of Tennessee. Despite a rushed, problematic trial and suppressed appeal that denied Ed Johnson any actual justice, he was a guilty man in the eyes of the law.

That changed on February 25, 2000, when the Criminal Court for Hamilton County -- the same court that had found Ed Johnson guilty in 1906 -- set aside Johnson's conviction and declared him innocent. Well-known Chattanooga lawyer Leroy Phillips served as Ed Johnson’s defense. District Attorney William Cox represented the state. Reverend Paul McDaniel served as Johnson’s “next friend” since he did not have any known living relatives.

The building was different–the courthouse where Ed Johnson was tried burned down in 1910. But the picture of the judge who presided over Ed Johnson’s trial hung on the wall of the courthouse where they were standing.

The bottom line is, is that this man was arrested, tried, convicted and lynched for one reason: He was an African-American. That's it. That's it,” Leroy Phillips told the Judge Douglas Meyer in the court proceedings.

Phillips continued, “Of course, we cannot permit justice in this country to function in that fashion, and I know Your Honor can't, and I respectfully submit to you that there is a legal basis for this proceeding and for this court's order, and it's needed. You know, not too long ago somebody said to me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ Well, I think that we have a lot of racial problems still left in this country, and, Your Honor, Your Honor knows that we have to look at those problems in a truthful manner and look at our history, not through rose-colored glasses, but look for the truth, and the truth in this case is brutal and is sickening. But the greatest thing is that we can send to the community a message that we care, that we care about justice, that we care about having a system that does not look to race.”

Initially, Phillips had asked to have Johnson’s conviction expunged, but after thinking about it, he asked Judge Meyer to set aside the conviction and provide Johnson the presumption of innocence. Phillips decided he did not want Johnson’s name erased from the Tennessee state criminal records. Instead, he wanted his name to be there as an innocent man. District Attorney Cox and the state of Tennessee supported the request.

During the court hearing, Rev. McDaniel spoke of his life experiences and why he wanted to be a part of the court proceedings that declared Johnson innocent. He told the judge, "...we ought to be mindful of our history, not only certain things we cherish, but also those things that would challenge us, that we may so carry on justice for all."

In the final minutes of his life, Ed Johnson said, “God bless you all. I am innocent.” Those words were true the day he spoke them. But after nearly 100 years, they were true in the Tennessee court records as well.

Click here to read the order of expungement. 

Click here to read the transcript of the hearing.


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