CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A judge on Tuesday granted Wyoming's first retrial based on DNA evidence, offering a new opportunity for freedom for a man who has served more than 23 years of a life sentence since being convicted of breaking into a Cheyenne woman's apartment and raping her.
Recent testing showed Andrew J. Johnson, 63, was not the source of male DNA taken from the victim after the 1989 attack. The DNA instead matched the victim's fiance at the time.
However, prosecutors say they still have other strong evidence against Johnson — including testimony from the victim. Johnson has remained jailed, but Laramie County District Judge Thomas Campbell on Tuesday set bond at $10,000 and said terms of Johnson's potential release would need to be worked out.
Johnson didn't visibly react to the ruling, and neither did a small group of relatives and other supporters in the courtroom. Afterward, relatives expressed mixed emotions — happiness about a new trial but disappointment the judge didn't dismiss the case and release Johnson right away.
"He's lost 24 years of his life," said a cousin, Barbara Johnson of Cheyenne. "Just let it go. It's been too long."
Johnson's exoneration — despite his attorneys' insistence that the DNA evidence is a fatal blow to the case against him — is not a foregone conclusion. District Attorney Scott Homar outlined for Campbell additional evidence besides the DNA that led to the jury verdict against Johnson.
Among that evidence: The victim identified Johnson as the rapist. Homar said after the hearing that he'd been in contact with the victim and could have her testify again.
"Certainly she is not thrilled about it," he said. "She was traumatized once."
The rape happened after Johnson and the victim spent an evening together visiting bars in Cheyenne, authorities said. Johnson told police he walked to his home after the victim drove to her home without him. The victim told police Johnson later broke in to her apartment and raped her in the dark, according to court documents.
In addition to collecting the DNA evidence from a rape kit, authorities found Johnson's personal identification in the victim's apartment and the victim found his glasses in her apartment a couple days after the attack. Johnson says he left the items at the apartment when he spent time there earlier on the evening of the attack.
Arguing for Johnson, Elizabeth Fasse with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center called the evidence "circumstantial." But Homar pointed out that investigators found the ID cards at the base of the door to the bathroom where the victim was raped.
After the hearing, Homar said he believed the new trial was the first in Wyoming granted because of DNA. A 2008 state law allows for post-conviction DNA testing.
In granting the new trial, Campbell said prosecutors in 1989 relied on fluid sample analysis as well as the victim's testimony in a "knot" that tied their case together.
"I'm happy that he's getting a new chance," said one of Johnson's sisters, Sharon Kramer of Cheyenne. "He's pretty certain that he hasn't done that."
Convicted of rape and burglary, Johnson was deemed a habitual offender and sentenced to life in prison because of previous convictions against him.
The judge allowed Johnson out of jail Friday to attend his mother's funeral. Kramer said their mother always believed in her son's innocence.