A Miami man imprisoned for 44 years for his conviction in the murder of an ice cream vendor’s wife was ordered freed Friday by a judge after the state attorney and public defender agreed his life sentence as a juvenile was unlawful.
Prince Johnson, 60, cried as his family members rejoiced over Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Richard Hersch’s decision to free him. His order was based on landmark rulings in the U.S. and Florida Supreme courts requiring new sentencing hearings for juveniles previously given life terms.
Both sides agreed that Johnson, a minor who was tried as an adult, should be resentenced to 50 years in prison — paving the way for his release Friday afternoon based on credit for the time he has already served.
“It took a long time coming since 1971,” said Johnson’s sister, Olive Coley. “My brother went to jail when he was 16 years old. And one of these days, we’re gonna go through that court and prove and exonerate his name completely.”
“He missed his whole life,” she said. “He was only 16.”
In late 1971, Johnson was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced as an adult because the state attorney’s office determined he was a “principal” — or participant — in the robbery that led to the fatal shooting of Marta Roman, 47, in her husband’s ice cream truck, according to office spokesman Ed Griffith.
But Griffith noted that both the prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices agreed Johnson was not the person who shot her in Coconut Grove. Another convicted defendant involved in the robbery pulled the trigger, he said.
Gale Lewis, supervisory attorney in the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office who represented Johnson, said his case was rushed through the judicial system in less than one month. She took up Johnson’s defense after he had filed a habeas corpus petition last year.
“I don’t know what happened back then,” Lewis said after Johnson’s release. “All I know is, we had to make it right.”
“This is what being a public defender is all about,” she said. “This means redemption. This means second chances.”
News of the July 25, 1971, fatal shooting made the Miami Herald’s Metro section. The headline read: “16-Year-Old Accused in Killing.”
According to the story by Edna Buchanan, the Herald’s legendary crime writer, the ice cream vendor’s wife was shot while waiting for her husband, Armando, to return from a friend’s apartment on Oak Avenue.
Witnesses saw two youths running from the scene, carrying a cash box taken from the truck. It contained $28 — “the price of a life in the Grove,” Lt. Phillip Doherty of the Miami homicide squad said angrily.
When the discarded box was later found, police examined it for fingerprints. That examination led to the arrest of Johnson. Police were able to make the match because Johnson’s fingerprints had been taken after his arrest on a previous concealed weapons charge.
Johnson’s chance at freedom came in March when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that juvenile killers are entitled to a “judicial review” of their sentences after 25 years. Florida judges have struggled to figure out appropriate sentences ever since the U.S. Supreme Court, in 2012, outlawed mandatory life prison terms without the chance for parole for minors convicted of murder.
The decision, in a case called Miller v. State of Alabama, left room for life sentences but ordered judges to first hear the circumstances of a young killer’s upbringing. The case followed another landmark ruling in Graham v. Florida that outright banned life sentences for juveniles in non-homicide cases, saying they amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment.
The added legal twist: Florida long ago abolished parole. But last year, the Legislature finally enacted a new law that requires a judge to “review” a killer’s sentence after 25 years, possibly reducing the term if the person was deemed to be fit to reenter society.
But the law did not apply to cases from before it went into effect: July 1, 2014.
That changed in March when the Florida Supreme Court took up a case called Horsley v. State of Florida and unanimously broadened the law, saying it should apply to older cases.
The Miami Herald’s news partner, CBS4, contributed to this story.