The arrest, conviction, incarceration, and even release of Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson highlights so much of what is wrong with the American criminal justice system, not just in 1970 but through to today.
Cetewayo was arrested just after his 18th birthday in 1970 for the murder of Jerome Wakefield. Police detectives at the time said that Cetewayo stabbed Wakefield after his 15-year-old co-defendant Gary Brame had shot the victim.
The problem is that neither of these confessions was worth the paper they were written on.
Fifteen-year-old Brame had been held and questioned for nearly 30 hours without access to either his parents or an attorney. He had been repeatedly beaten over 21 hours of direct interrogation and had spit out different names throughout. It was only after the last round of beatings and questioning that Brame told detectives what they wanted to hear and about who.
“Back then cops went after those they knew, people they’ve had contact with, and I had just beaten a case a few months earlier, but I had gotten out of gangs by then,” said Cetewayo about why he thought he was targeted by police.
Police interrogated Cetewayo for 20 hours, regularly beating him like they had Brame. In the end, police brought in a “confession,” which he signed. Setting aside the abuse by the police, there was another problem with the so-called confession, Cetewayo couldn’t read. He had only made it through the third grade before having to drop out.
This is the information the Jury convicted Cetewayo of 1st-degree murder on in 1971, and the Judge sentenced him to life in prison. Except they never got to hear about the beatings endured by the two boys and Cetewayo’s inability to even read what he had signed or any of the other names given to the police before Brame landed on the one police wanted.
The Philadelphia Police Department, in addition to the direct abuses they doled out to these kids, also withheld all the exculpatory evidence they had in their possession from both the prosecution and defense.
It was only after Cetewayo’s attorneys got him out of solitary confinement and they were able to investigate his criminal case that they realized his file wasn’t in the DA’s office. While looking for Cetewayo’s case file they checked the log files at the roundhouse, which is when they found all of this information that was never handed over to the DA at the time of his original trial.
Finally, after half a century, the Police and the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Philadelphia D.A.’s turned over the evidence showing that Cetewayo was innocent. In 2020 signed a statement admitting that Cetewayo had nothing to do with the murder.
Even the Philadelphia Judge Scott DiClaudio had to admit the entire case was predicated on lies cooked up by the Philadelphia Police Department under the notoriously corrupt, racist, brute Frank Rizzo. He had led a war against the African American community as police chief and Mayor in Philadelphia for more than a decade.
“(Gary Brame) was coerced when interviewed in such a manner that the circumstances of the information provided to the police and the jury…could cause the court to hesitate as to the veracity of the witness,” said Judge DiClaudio, according to court documents. “It was a serious misrepresentation to the jury, that went unchecked.”
You’d think that would have been the end of it, Cetewayo would have had the conviction overturned, and he would be a free, exonerated man, waiting for the money from a Civil Suit to flow in.
If you thought that, you’d have been wrong because that would have been too much like right.
What happened instead was the D.A.’s office approached Cetewayo with a plea deal for time served of 10 to 20 years on 3rd-degree murder. Knowing he had been tortured for half a century in the Pennsylvania prison system, including 37 years in solitary confinement. That he would be desperate to get out of prison by any means and as soon as possible. The system took advantage of his need to get home to his family, old age, and for freedom, to maintain the original injustice of the conviction and deny him the restitution society owed him.
“Remember, I had just been in prison for 51, and these people were telling me I could sit in prison or county jail and go to trial or I could go home today if I took their plea deal for murder 3 with a sentence of 10 to 20 years,” said Johnson. “Of course I took the deal, I think anyone would have after spending 51 years in prison, especially when 37 of them were in solitary confinement. I know in this country we’re guilty until proven innocent, so this was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Cetewayo is far from the only would be exonerated person to fall into this trap. As of the writing of this article, we have found at least eight in Philadelphia, and the practice is widespread across the country where conviction integrity units are used to “correct” past police, prosecutorial and judicial misconduct.
Extending the already unjust system of plea dealing to those who have already been abused by a corrupt and racist criminal justice system with convictions that should be thrown out to prevent them from receiving the justice they’re owed.
The Executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center, Saleem Holbrook called Cetewayo’s release a victory, “it’s bittersweet because we didn’t get justice, but we got freedom for him, I’ll take that.”
For Cetewayo, returned to the loving arms and support of his family and friends, freedom isn’t enough. He’s choosing to live up to the nickname given to him in his youth and continuing to fight not just for liberation but for vindication.
In January of this year, Cetewayo tried to go back to court with a motion to withdraw his guilty plea and demand a new trial. Unfortunately, Judge DiClaudio chose to threaten Cetewayo with a return to the prison system that tortured him for 51 years and held him in solitary confinement for 37 years.
“I saw the opportunity to end this 51 year nightmare of being in prison for something I didn’t do and I took it, I needed to get out and be with my family,” said Johnson
Judge DiClaudio, has recently been censured and is currently on judicial supervision for misconduct while on the bench unrelated to this issue.
In a court hearing to withdraw the plea on February 3, 2022, before Cetewayo even arrived at court Judge DiCaudio told Emeka Igwe, Cetewayo’s attorney, for the proceeding, “I will be happy to (allow him to withdraw his guilty plea). I will have two sheriffs put him back in custody, I will reinstate the 1st degree, and he can appeal.”
After a short recess to wait for Cetewayo to get to the court, the hearing picks up.
In response to Igwe’s motion to withdraw Cetewayo’s guilty plea. “I hesitantly agreed to the Commonwealth’s recommendation to vacate the jury’s verdict, initially upon a plea deal to 3rd degree murder for 10 to 20,” said Judge DiClaudio, according to transcripts.
As the Judge continues to berate Cetewayo and his attorney for the injustice of a system that shouldn’t have ever had him in prison in the first place, he accuses them of pulling a fast one on the court because in the court’s haste to paper over its own guilt it accepted a plea deal for a crime that didn’t even exist at the time of the initial conviction.
After admitting once again to prosecutorial and judicial error, Judge DiClaudio threatens Cetewayo to his face telling him he “has three choices; option one, leave it as it is and go home today; option two, we can amend it to second degree, with the same set of facts and sentence. The third option, I will permit him to withdraw his guilty plea and reinstate first-degree murder, and the sheriffs will take him into custody in the next five minutes.
Eventually, the Judge relents and allows a thirty-minute recess for Igwe to confer with Cetewayo after reversing his original position. He found the Brady Violations in the first trial to be substantial enough to overturn the original conviction, to say he no longer held that opinion.
“I’ve done over 600 PCRA’s (Post-Conviction Relief) and I might be wrong, and in the next 3 or 4 years, you may win the appeal. Mr. Johnson (Cetewayo) has already done 51 years in prison, what is another 3 or 4 years, I’m sure he’ll be just fine.” Said DiClaudio. Mocking the trauma Cetewayo endured during 51 years in prison, 37 of which were spent in solitary confinement, for a crime the evidence shows he didn’t commit.
Cetewayo did the only logical thing he could do in the face of a hostile Judge in a corrupt system and withdrew his motion to withdraw his guilty plea, understanding that he would have a future opportunity to come back on Post-Conviction Relief.
According to people with knowledge about Arthur “Cetewayo” Johnson’s case, his attorney is in the process of filing a new PRCA motion and plans to get back into court, with the goal being to have his conviction dismissed. He’s not done fighting to have the courts recognize his innocence, which the facts clearly show.
If you’re interested in Cetewayo’s case, others would-be exonerees, judicial, prosecutorial, police misconduct, check out the links below to learn more and learn what you can do.