Resources for Leaders

The Kevin Johnson Story

The personal history of a man whose story had a profound effect on the genesis of COSEBOC.

Introduction

Chapter 1

Please allow me to introduce myself. My name is Kevin Johnson and I want to thank you for inviting me here today. I would like to share a very compelling story with you about my life and how education has played a major role in shaping it.

In 1973, I attended Sayre Jr. High School where I first met a very dedicated teacher named Mr. Ronald Walker. He and I connected well as student-teacher. When you entered his classroom, Mr. Walker insisted that his students put on their thinking caps and wear it at all times. This was Mr. Walker’s law. He believed his students all had potential and wanted to bring out the best in us.

I recall one day in particular when Mr. Walker was handing out test paper results and he was not happy about the number of students who failed the exam. As he distributed those papers, he could no longer hold back from reading us the “riot act.” And toward the end of his fiery dialogue, I’ll never forget what he said to us. He said “I bet if I were to ask you what were the lyrics to today’s top hits, you’d be able to tell me right off the top of your head. But you won’t study to pass your exam.”

I took that statement personal. In my mind, sounded like he was grouping me with everyone else. And I knew that I could do better. From that day forward, I made it my business to always bring my A-game when it came to my work in Mr. Walker’s class.

For example, I once brought to class my African art souvenir that I’d picked up at a museum. And I stood in front of the class and told them everything I knew about the African woman who carried the basket on top of her head. I enjoyed being able to excel in Mr. Walker’s class because it allowed me distinguish myself from the rest of the pack. It was in Mr. Walker’s class that I learned to draw the map of Africa.

In an effort to get us to open our minds and think about our future, Mr. Walker would often ask the class, “Where do you see yourself 3, 5, or 7 years from now? And what are you doing to prepare for it?” I wonder if Mr. Walker realizes how much of an impact that his words had on many of us.

By the time I reached 9th grade, I was elected Student Council President and Mr. Walker supervised our group. After leaving Sayre Jr. High in 1975, I went on to attend Bok Vocational Technical High School (“Bok Tech”) where I really became interested in English. During my junior year at Bok, I also began to get serious about going to college. I even visited a few Pennsylvania colleges with my classmates. The experience was priceless. Walking across the campus and entering those beautiful buildings, I felt mature, important, and like I belonged there. After thoroughly enjoying the tours, I was determined more than ever to take the necessary steps to enroll in college. I had the full support of my parents and friends. I started writing to colleges (Harvard & University of California at Berkeley) and requesting their applications. Back then, the processing fee was $30-$35. Next, I spoke with my academic counselor and signed up to take the SAT exam. I recall this portion of my life all too well.

It’s approximately 7:30 a.m., Saturday morning and I was awakened by the doorbell ringing. When I opened my front door, there stood my neighbor and fellow classmate Brenda. She shouted, “Come on, Kevin, we’ve got to take the college exam.” I immediately ran up the stairs to my parent’s bedroom. My dad was asleep. I grabbed his arm and shook him and said, “Dad, Dad, come on, we’ve got to take the college exam.” My dad rolled out of bed and into the bathroom. He put on his bathrobe and headed down the steps. Me, Brenda, and my Dad jumped into his new money green Lincoln Town car and headed to the testing site.

The problem is, we lived in Southwest Philly and the testing center was clear across town Overbrook High School. When we arrived, Brenda and I ran up the steps, started tugging on the door handles only to find that we were too late. The doors were locked and testing had begun. We then got back into the car and my Dad drove us home.

Surprisingly, when I returned to school on Monday, no teacher or counselor ever asked how I did on the SAT exam. Looking back, this could have changed the course of my life if I had followed through and gone to college. I believe it is a huge mistake when counselors do not make a meaningful effort to assist students with pursuing their dreams of attending college. This is an area that certainly deserves examining and great improvement.

As I mentioned earlier, I became interested in English while at Bok. That’s because it has always been my favorite subject. During my senior year, I was placed in the top English class. Mr. Joseph Palia was the perfect English teacher for bringing out the best in us who really enjoyed English. In fact, he encouraged me to go to college for journalism. Mr. Palia saw potential in me.

I was a natural fit in his class and he seemed to enjoy discussing my writing projects with me. I even had two letters-to-the-editor published in the Philadelphia Daily News in 1978 (the first criticizing the school superintendent for not having sufficient funds to pay teachers who were threatening to strike, and the second about the Son of Sam killer) under the guidance of Mr. Palia. In hindsight, I truly wish I had followed his advice and gone to college for journalism.

After graduating from Bok Tech in June of 1978 with training in automotive repair and maintenance, I immediately landed an entry level job (car jockey) at a new car dealership, Century Chevrolet. And for the next several years, I worked at new car dealerships and auto body shops, ranging from parts truck driver to auto detailer.

As I gained more experience and acquired new skills, I became an even greater asset to my employers. This led to promotions and higher pay.

The lesson here: I took full advantage of the quality opportunities to learn and educate myself in a variety of areas of the auto trade, including both foreign and domestic vehicles. I even had the chance to drive a Rolls Royce, among other fine luxury automobiles.

Chapter 2

In 1986, at age 25, my world suddenly came crashing in. I was arrested and charged with first-degree capital murder for a crime I did not commit and had absolutely no knowledge of or involvement. I had only my high school diploma, the courage of a lion, and zero education in law. I realized that in order to prove my innocence I needed to learn the law, the Constitution, and identify the relevant legal issues pertaining to my case. DNA was not applicable. Prior to trial, I started attending the prison law library. After being convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole, I made it my business to attend the law library Monday thru Friday each week. It paid off.

In November 1989, the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in my favor and found that my court-appointed trial attorney violated several Rules of Professional Conduct while representing me and took disciplinary action against him. Then, on January 31, 2005, while representing myself, the Pennsylvania Superior Court granted my appeal and reversed the lower court judge’s order denying my request for a new trial. On June 27, 2011, with the assistance of counsel, the Superior Court overturned my first-degree murder conviction and ordered a new trial. The Court’s ruling was based on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim that I raised on my own before procuring counsel.

Aside from winning appeals in my own case, I was also successful in winning appeals for other prisoners. Working at the law library for many years has afforded me the quality opportunity to educate myself on the law. I developed many skills along the way and utilized them to serve the needs of myself and other prisoners. In February 2020, I received my certification for completion of the Legal Reference Aide Training I received. My latest legal victory: October 1, 2020, I won an appeal under the Pennsylvania Right-To-Know Law In the matter of James Gray v. Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. See Office of Open Records website at: http://openrecords.pa.gov.

The lesson here: I recognized the quality opportunity for educating myself on the law. As a direct result of my legal education and skills, I am now represented by the Pennsylvania Innocence Project and on the verge of having the Court set aside my conviction and setting me free.

Just imagine if I had gone to college.

In 1992, while watching BET News, I could hardly believe my eyes. There stood in front of the camera my former teacher and Big Brother, Mr. Ronald Walker. Не was being interviewed by a reporter because a student had committed suicide at the Peabody school. The last time Mr. Walker and I had spoken was in 1975. I immediately wrote to the producer at BET and requested Mr. Walker’s contact information. After receiving his address, I wrote to Mr. Walker and explained that I had been falsely convicted of a murder that I did not commit. I enclosed a flier to the $1,000 reward established by my family seeking to obtain information about the actual person or persons responsible for committing the murder. Mr. Walker promptly wrote back and let me know that he knew that I could not have committed the murder. Hearing those words come from a man who knew me and believed in me made all the difference in the world.

For nearly 30 years, Mr. Walker and I have formed a strong bond and exchanged dozens of letters during that period. I consider him family. In 2005, while discussing the positive influence that Mr. Walker had on me, my supervisor, Principal Ramer, and I instantly agreed that Mr. Walker was the perfect candidate for being the keynote speaker at the Mahanoy graduation. I was so elated to see him in person after so many years had passed. For me it was a proud moment to watch and listen carefully to my teacher and longtime friend stand before the graduates and prison administration to deliver a down-to-earth message that seemed to connect with every person in the audience. To this day, I am very grateful and honored that Mr. Walker gladly accepted the invitation to come to Mahanoy prison and deliver his message: changing times calls for changing needs.

I have always admired and respected teachers for the extraordinary work they do. Shaping the minds of students is priceless and rewarding. For example, I often find myself teaching others what I know about the law. It is important that people are given correct information. Otherwise, they may find themselves missing filing deadlines, prevented from obtaining review of their cases, or having their appeals dismissed, among other things. To compound matters, when individuals lack a basic education, or have no education at all, it becomes vitally important that they consult with someone who actually knows the law.

Putting aside the law, I also find it very important for individuals to obtain a basic education in life. And I discovered one day that I could use my education to teach prisoners to use computers, perform certain types of research, prepare resumes, write letters, and complete forms.

This was my transformation.

Chapter 3

For approximately 12 years, I worked as a teacher’s aide helping prisoners to learn basic skills. At some point, I realized that helping others had a positive and immeasurable impact on my spirit, self-worth, and character. Despite my circumstances, I refuse to turn my back on anyone who is deserving of my time and attention.

As you may have gathered through reading my story, I developed a great respect for education and its value over the course of my life. And whenever I was presented with an opportunity to educate myself whether in English, computer applications, automobiles, or the science of law, I challenged myself to learn something new and succeeded in acquiring new skills. Having a solid education means you have vital tools for helping you to overcome any obstacles and challenges you may face in life. It also provides countless advantages, opens the door for other opportunities, and could potentially lead to prosperity and much success.

The lesson here: challenge yourself to learn something new. Your education is important and will serve you well. Find a way to serve others who could benefit from it as well.

Just imagine if I had gone to college. At 60, I suppose it’s never too late.

Respectfully submitted,
Kevin F. Johnson