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Only on 3: Man serving 132 years for robbery speaks out

NORFOLK, Va. - Messiah Johnson spoke only to News 3 about efforts to overturn his robbery conviction and 132 year prison sentence.

Messiah Johnson

"I've never really accepted the sentence as my reality," said Johnson from behind bars at the Sussex II State Prison.

His release date is listed as April 14, 2124.  Johnson recalled how the lengthy sentenced impacted his daughter when he was sentenced nearly 20 year ago.

"Even at 7 years old, one of the things she said was, ‘You can't even live that long, can you dad’?" Johnson said.

Johnson is essentially serving a life sentence for a 1997 beauty salon robbery in Norfolk that did not end in any deaths or injuries.  There was no DNA or other evidence that connected Johnson to the crime.  He was arrested and convicted based on eyewitness testimony from some of the victims.  Now, attorneys with the University of Virginia Innocence Project are working to overturn the conviction by questioning events during Johnson's trial and identifying another man who has admitted to committing the robbery.

"I'm glad that the public has a chance to hear my story," Johnson said.

On December 5, 1997, two robbers barged into a crowded Reca's Hair Salon on 35th Street in Norfolk.  Their faces were partially covered.  One of the robbers had a gun.  They forced everyone to the floor and stole cash and jewelry, and took off.  Witnesses interviewed after the robbery could not give exact descriptions, but they did remember that one of the men was wearing eyeglasses.

Two weeks after the robbery, the salon owner spotted a then 24-year-old Messiah Johnson, who was wearing his eyeglasses, leaving a restaurant.  The salon's owner called police and identified Johnson as one of the people who robbed his salon.  Police arrested Johnson.  Johnson said he did not know why police arrested him at the time.

"It wasn't until I got downtown and they said you're a suspect in a robbery," he said.

Johnson's first trial ended in a mistrial after questions about a photo line up displayed to the victims.  He said Norfolk prosecutors then offered him a plea deal:  three years in prison for a guilty plea.

"I just wasn't going to accept taking a plea deal for something I didn't do," said Johnson.

Johnson took his chances with a second trial.  Key witnesses had some conflicting testimony concerning what the robbers were wearing.  Questions about the photo lineup remained.  While Norfolk Circuit Judge Junius Fulton said "there are some problems with the Commonwealth's case," he denied another mistrial.

Jurors sentenced Johnson for two dozen charges related to both robbers, totaling 132 years in prison.  Many expressed regret in letters to the court for the length of the sentence and confusion over sentencing instructions.

"I just had my head held up high and I just been fighting ever since then," said Johnson.

Johnson's appeal after the trial was denied.  He continued to write letters to the court from prison, highlighting claims of errors at his trial.  There was no movement in the case until the University of Virginia Innocence Project took on his case a few years ago.  Their investigation led to Robert Humphries, another man already serving time for Norfolk robberies.  He admitted in a signed affidavit that he was indeed the robber of the salon, not Johnson.

"I've just been elated and glad to finally present [this to] everybody so they can see what the truth is," Johnson said.

His attorneys could file a Writ of Innocence based on Humphries' confession to free Johnson.  However, attorney Jennifer Givens explained in court that if that fails, Johnson would be completely out of options.  Their strategy is to exhaust every legal option that would end in Johnson's freedom.

Johnson's attorneys took their evidence and claims of trial errors to court in June, but Judge Fulton, the same judge who presided over Johnson's trial in the 1990s, said he did not have the authority to overturn the conviction.  He referred them to federal court and wished them luck in their efforts.

"We plan to move forward and keep fighting until I'm exonerated and of course liberated," said Johnson.

Johnson's attorneys have asked for a partial pardon, which would get Johnson out of prison while they work on overturning his conviction.

The owner of the salon who identified Johnson as the robber stands by his testimony.