NORFOLK, Va. - A Norfolk man who was sentenced to 132 years in prison, will eventually be a free man. On his last day in office, Governor McAuliffe granted Messiah Johnson a conditional pardon.
More than 20 years after Messiah Johnson was arrested for a crime he said he did not commit, he learns the future he wanted is possible: being free.
"He's been the strongest one out of everybody through the entire ordeal," said Tomas Johnson, Messiah Johnson's cousin.
Messiah's family, including Mildred, Tomas and Toscina spoke only with News 3 Friday night.
"For the family, pure elation and manifestation of a strong faith that God is always able, always willing and He will provide," said Tomas.
Johnson was convicted in a 1997 robbery of a salon in Norfolk. Court documents say no DNA or physical evidence linked him to the crime. Three people confirmed his alibi. But a jury sentenced him to 132 years in prison. That journey, lasting two decades leads to one fateful Friday.
Tomas had walked through Mildred's door and he said two to three minutes later, the phone rang.
"When I heard his [Messiah] voice I figured it had to be good," said Tomas. They learned about Gov. McAculiffe's conditional pardon.
"We were able to conference in other family members hearing it for the first time. There was a lot of emotional.... crying at the same time. But he [Messiah] pretty much held it together," said Tomas.
Early on, Johnson was offered a plea deal: three years in prison for a guilty plea. He previously told News 3, "I just wasn't going to accept taking a plea deal for something I didn't do."
That's something his aunt Mildred agreed with from the beginning. Johnson kept fighting. Attorneys with the University of Virginia Innocence Project have been working to overturn Johnson's conviction. Their investigation led to Robert Humphries, a man already serving time for robberies who admitted to committing the crime.
Moving forward, Johnson's family said this obstacle wasn't without reason. Messiah Johnson has a new fight.
"To bring hope to other individuals like himself that's gone through the same types of situations and struggles and have doubt, maybe the hopeless," said Toscina.
Johnson will be out of prison until the appeals process is over. Afterward, he could be a free man or go back to prison. Governor McAuliffe pardoned Johnson on the condition he completes the Department of Corrections re-entry program before he's released. Then, he'll enter a three year period of supervised release.