Former Death Row Inmate Released from Jail without Conditions Following more than 15 Years of Advocacy

June 1, 2012

On June 1, 2012, following more than 15 years of advocacy by Cleary Gottlieb, pro bono client and former death row inmate Erskine Johnson was released from jail without any conditions.

In 1985, Erskine Johnson (who later changed his name to Ndume Olatushani), was convicted of a murder stemming from a grocery store robbery in Memphis, Tennessee and was sentenced to death. When Cleary Gottlieb began representing Erskine in 1995, he was on death row. Shortly after Erskine’s trial, exculpatory evidence withheld by the prosecution was discovered. In 2001, Cleary Gottlieb succeeded in having his death sentence set aside (on Brady grounds), and in 2004 the firm persuaded the prosecution not to seek the death penalty again and instead to agree to a life sentence. Since then, Cleary Gottlieb litigated in the Tennessee state courts to have Mr. Johnson’s conviction reversed.

In 2011, the Cleary Gottlieb team filed a “writ of error coram nobis” requesting that the court consider facts not on the trial record that might have changed the outcome of the jury’s decision. The firm argued that newly discovered evidence entitled Erskine to a new trial, especially in light of substantial exculpatory evidence that the State wrongfully withheld from the defense when the case was first tried. The lower court disagreed and dismissed the writ. However, on December 9, 2011 the Tennessee appellate court, in a 3-0 decision, reversed that judgment, vacated Erskine’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

Johnson remained in jail, waiting to see if the State would retry him. Rather than retry the case, Cleary Gottlieb negotiated a favorable resolution with the State, under which Johnson agreed to an Alford time-served plea to a reduced charge, while maintaining his innocence. Johnson was released without any conditions on June 1, 2012.

More than 25 Cleary Gottlieb lawyers have dedicated over 15,000 hours to this effort.