A Norfolk man pardoned by former Governor Terry McAuliffe after being sentenced to 132 years for a 1997 armed robbery has been released from prison.
Messiah Johnson was granted a conditional pardon in January 2018 after serving more than 20 years for a Norfolk beauty salon robbery. His pardon allows him to be released on the conditions that he complete a Department of Corrections re-entry program and enter a three-year period of supervised release.
Johnson has maintained his innocence in the 1997 robbery of Recas Hair Salon on 35th Street.
Witnesses said two men with their faces partially covered barged into the salon on a busy night. One of the robbers had a gun. They forced the owner, employees and customers to the ground as they stole cash and took off. No one was killed or injured. Court documents said police did not take fingerprints or any physical evidence from the crime scene.
Weeks later, the salon's owner spotted Johnson at a restaurant and identified him as one of the robbers.
Johnson was arrested.
Despite previous run-ins with the law, Johnson had a well-paying job at the time, and a confirmed alibi for the night of the robbery. No physical or DNA evidence linked him to the robbery.
Johnson's first trial ended in a mistrial. During the second trial, Johnson denied a plea deal that would have given him three years in prison. The jury sentenced him to several years on each of the 24 charges he was facing, leaving him with a 132-year sentence.
A few years ago, Johnson's case was taken on by attorneys with the University of Virginia Innocence Project. Their investigation led to Robert Humphries, another man already serving time for Norfolk robberies committed in the same manner and around the same time frame as the Recas Hair Salon robbery. Humphries confessed in a signed affidavit that he was indeed the robber of the salon, not Johnson.
Johnson's attorneys took their evidence and claims of trial errors to court in June of 2017. However, 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.
Johnson's attorneys then asked Governor McAuliffe for a conditional pardon so he could be released from prison while they work on overturning his conviction.
Gov. McAuliffe granted Johnson the pardon on his last day in office.
Johnson will be out of prison until the appeals process is over. Afterward, he could be a free man or go back to prison.