Family member of death row exoneree speaks out
A view of the death chamber from the witness room at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility shows an electric chair and gurney. Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images.
When a man named Dale Johnston began dating my mother-in-law in 1998, I admit that I was uneasy. In the town where we lived, his name had become synonymous with brutality, violence, and evil.
In 1982, the bodies of Dale’s stepdaughter, Annette Cooper and her fiancé, Todd Schultz, had been discovered in pieces along the Hocking River. The young couple had been viciously attacked and murdered, rocking the community to its core.
The community’s need for justice was strong, and the pressure was high to catch whoever had committed this atrocious crime. Because Dale was opposed to Todd and Annette’s engagement, he became a suspect for the murders. From the beginning, Dale denied any involvement, and there were other strong suspects. Yet officials zeroed in on Dale and tried to shoehorn the evidence to fit a theory that was shaky, at best. Dale was convicted of the murders and sentenced to death in 1984.
As the case wound its way through the appeals process, the courts began to see glaring mistakes – hypnotized witnesses, junk science, and failure to pursue credible suspects. One by one, the judges who examined Dale’s case found more reason to release him from prison. Finally, thirty-two years ago, Dale Johnston was exonerated on May 10, 1990 and walked free the next day.
Being free from prison did not mean that Dale was actually free, though. While wrongfully imprisoned, he had lost his reputation, his livelihood, and his community. The shadow of this ordeal followed him for decades. That’s why I admit that, when it looked like Dale was going to become my step father-in-law, I had my doubts. Who could blame me? Everyone had pointed the finger at him for years. Officials were so sure they had the right guy.
In 2008, two men confessed to the murders, and the shadow of doubt began to dissipate – not disappear. The damage had been done.
As I reflect on Dale’s story, I am deeply troubled at the way we sentenced this innocent man to death so easily. Everyone was convinced that Dale Johnston had murdered his stepdaughter and her fiancé in cold blood. If we’re going to own the responsibility of taking another human being’s life, we better be sure we have the right person, beyond a shadow of a doubt. And yet, they pursued and accused the wrong man for decades. How can we ever be sure that we get it right if Dale Johnston – the man so maligned for years and years – was innocent all along? The death penalty simply must not continue if we are so prone to error.
In addition to being in Dale’s family, I am a Christian pastor. I believe in Jesus’ message. When asked about a death penalty crime in His day, He said, “Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone.” No one stepped up. They all walked away. I would simply ask, who among us is qualified to flip the switch on someone’s life? Instead, we could let the God who gives life, be the one who takes it. This, along with the practical failings of our system that I have personally witnessed, make me convinced that it’s time Ohio abolishes its death penalty.
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