Just after midnight on July 19, 1995, Jefferson County, Ala., deputy William Hardy was moonlighting as a security guard for the Crown Sterling Suites hotel in Birmingham. Around 12:30 a.m., Hardy must have heard something in the parking lot that got his attention, because he stepped away from his post to investigate, and was shot dead.
At the time William Hardy was killed, Toforest Johnson, then 22, and his friend Ardragus Ford, 21, were partying at a nightclub called Tee’s Place on the other side of Birmingham. Johnson’s appellate attorneys would later provide 10 witnesses who saw him at the club.
Over the next few years, six young black men and one black girl would be arrested for crimes associated with Hardy’s murder. Four were charged. Two were tried — one was acquitted; Johnson was convicted and sentenced to die.
Law enforcement officials threatened witnesses with incarceration and the loss of custody of their children if they didn’t tell authorities the story they wanted to hear.
Yolanda Chambers, age 15, was threatened with arrest if she did not implicate anyone, and was responsible for Johnson’s arrest. At one point, prosecutors themselves conceded that since William Hardy’s murder, Chambers had told more than 300 lies about who was involved and what she knew. Chambers was never a credible witness, she told many different stories and at various points admitted she knew nothing.
At trial, the principle prosecution witness was Violet Ellison who claimed to have heard a phone confession from an inmate who identified himself over the telephone as Toforest ( who she did not know ). This alleged confession allegedly occurred the day after a $10,000 reward was announced by the governor. In 2003, Johnson’s appellate attorneys learned that the state of Alabama paid Ellison $5,000 in 2001 for her assistance to the prosecution. DA David Barber wrote that Ellison came forward “pursuant to the public offer of a reward.” even though the jury was told she came forward solely because of “her conscience” and so that she “can sleep at night.”
At Johnson’s first trial, the jury hung. After a second trial he was convicted and sentenced to death.