On Tuesday, Johnson's prayers were answered. At age 41, he walked out of the same courthouse a free man. "I had faith that in some way, some day, the truth would come out, and I kept the faith," Johnson said.
DNA evidence - collected from semen on cotton swabs filed away with other evidence from the trial - was tested in November at the request of a New York-based defense attorneys organization. It proved conclusively that although a College Park woman identified Johnson as the man who raped and sodomized her in 1983, someone else committed the crime.
The woman, in her early 20s, testified she was awakened in her bed by an attacker sitting on her back. He pulled a belt around her neck and choked her until she passed out. When she regained consciousness, the man put a towel around her head and raped and sodomized her.
"There is no doubt this woman was raped, and she picked Calvin from a photographic array, but the evidence from the rape kit proved conclusively that the person who committed the crime was not Calvin Johnson," said Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, which specializes in DNA-based defense. The year after Johnson, who had a 1981 burglary conviction, was convicted of rape, a Fulton County jury acquitted him of a sexual assault that had occurred two days before the Clayton County attack.
Neufeld, one of the lawyers on O.J. Simpson's defense team, said Johnson had served the longest sentence of any of the 38 defendants whose convictions have been overturned because of DNA-based evidence presented by the Innocence Project. Upon his release Tuesday, Johnson was greeted by members of his family, including his 70-year-old father. Calvin Johnson Sr. said he saw little reason to celebrate. "I don't celebrate tragedies," the elder Johnson said. "It's something that should've happened 16 years ago. So I'm not going to celebrate now. It's as simple as that."
The newly freed man spent Tuesday afternoon visiting his ailing mother, 66-year-old JoAnn Johnson, at an Atlanta hospital. "At one point, she pointed to a tear running down her cheek," Johnson said. "I wiped it off. I knew it was a tear of joy."
After meeting with defense lawyers and prosecutors Tuesday, Judge Matthew O. Simmons ordered a new trial for Johnson. Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller, who had prosecuted the case 16 years ago, then formally dropped the charges. Keller said he decided not to prosecute Johnson again after seeing the DNA test results. "I didn't feel he should spend one more day in prison," said the prosecutor. Keller said Johnson could file a claim with the state Board of Compensation for damages.
The district attorney also said his office tried to locate the woman who was raped, but could not find her. "I don't think this was a miscarriage or a failure of the system," he said. "It points out the tremendous advantages of new testing that we didn't have in 1983. It is a tragedy when a person spends so much time in prison, and I'm sorry for that."
During a quiet moment in the courtroom, Keller walked to the defense table and extended his hand to Johnson. "Congratulations," the prosecutor said. Johnson smiled, and the men shook hands.
After the judge told Johnson he was free, Johnson embraced his lawyers, stood and hugged his father and his sisters, and smiled when Neufeld handed him the pen used to sign the papers for his freedom. "The judge wanted you to have the pen," Neufeld said.
On the courthouse steps, Johnson admitted he had been angry for years after he was sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit. But he abandoned his anger after he "dedicated my life to God." "I don't see any reason to harbor bitterness," said Johnson. "If you hold that in your heart, it will destroy you."