My name is Yohannes Johnson and I am submitting this application to ask for clemency. I am
sixty-four years old, and I have served forty years of a seventy-five to life sentence for a series of
armed robberies that left one person dead. The recklessness of my younger self haunts me, and I am ashamed of the pain and suffering my crimes caused Errol Blackwood, Andrew White, Miguel Galarza and their families. I write not as an excuse for my actions but as an explanation of who I used to be, who I am now, and the people who have helped me along the way.
I grew up in Harlem in the 1960’s and 70’s. I lived with and was raised by my mother, father,
older brother and older sister. I shared a room with my two brothers Joseph (older) and Charles
(younger). Charles is mentally disabled and most of the family attention was focused on him and his needs. I was closest to my older sister, Linda, and as Charles’s needs took up most of my parents’ time and energy, Linda was often my caregiver.
My mother was a housewife and my father was a police officer. My parents separated when I was young, but we had a pretty stable household until my sister left home at 16 years old to
venture out on her own. My sister and I were close, so much so that after she left I would run away only to end up at her house and stay there for a few days until I was sent home. My upbringing under her drew me into the streets. When Linda was 16 and I was 11, she started using and selling drugs and I started using and selling drugs as well. There was no supervision at her apartment or with my mother, so I was free to do anything from a very young age. I looked up to Linda, was protective of her, and followed her into drug use and selling. In 1970 my older brother Joseph was in a terrible bus accident from which he suffered injuries for the rest of his life.
My life was upended at the age of 14 when my sister Linda died unexpectedly in December
1971. Being raised by my sister, I felt she would always be there for me. Her passing left me
wandering in life trying to make sense of it all. I remember the day that I had to identify her body
and tell my parents she had died. She died from an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol and I
blamed myself for not protecting her. After that, I was angry at the world and held everyone
responsible for her death. I turned away from everyone I knew, convinced that they couldn’t feel
the pain, suffering, and loneliness I was experiencing. Without my sister, I was lost and my life was a ball of confusion. I picked up a number of arrests between 1972 and 1973. Worst of all, I was responsible for my brother Joseph’s involvement in a robbery. I plead guilty and was sentenced to four years. My brother got probation because it was his first arrest. I was sent upstate to Elmira. While in Elmira, my father passed from a heart attack in 1974. I cried and wished I could do more to comfort my family. I learned that my mother did not want me to know about his passing. She was afraid of how it would affect me, especially in response to my sister's death. That hit me hard and only compounded the hurt, pain, and grief that I felt from the loss of my sister.
After losing my sister and father, I lost all control over my life. Foolishness, selfishness, and senselessness had become the order of my days. On a number of occasions, I was forewarned that my destructive ways would become a heavy burden that I would have to bear for the rest of my life, but I dismissed these warnings. The years were a blur, and I was stuck in a vicious cycle of criminal acts and incarceration. Released in 1976, I was arrested again, then released on bail in 1977 only to be arrested again. After pleading guilty I received another four year sentence running concurrent. After being released in 1980, I thought I could continue in this lifestyle, using drugs and robbing people. I was foolish and at the time had no regard for human life, my own, or others. I had finally hit rock bottom.
On December 9th, 1980 I was thinking about my sister Linda, as it was very close to the anniversary of her death, and I would think of her and wonder how things would be if she were still alive. Then later that same evening, I was robbed at gunpoint. The experience left me shaken, angry, and feeling powerless. I wanted to make up for my loss of money, and regain some measure of control by robbing others. In this lost and angry state of mind I committed the armed robberies that led to me shooting and killing Mr. Blackwood, and traumatizing Mr. White and Mr. Galarza. Though I had no intention of killing anyone, I carried a loaded gun that night and I take full responsibility for the death of Mr. Blackwood.
That night, after my own robbery, I borrowed a friend's car and drove around for a bit,
looking for people to rob. Eventually I saw a man near a pay phone, and decided he would be a safe target to stick-up. This man was Errol Blackwood. I approached him and demanded his money. He turned from the phone, and after a moment's hesitation, he lurched towards me. In my agitated and anxious state, I pulled the trigger. At that moment, I thought that the shot had only grazed him. I thought that his injuries were treatable and that he would survive. I was wrong, and Mr. Blackwood paid with his life for my poor judgement and lack of compassion.
After leaving the scene, I got back in my friend’s car and looked for another person to rob.
Later that evening I robbed Mr. Miguel Galarza and Mr. Andrew White. In Mr. White’s cab, as I
reached for the money, he began to reach for my shotgun. The shotgun was pointed upwards and I cocked it to shoot through the roof of the car. Fortunately Mr. White was not shot but it was a scary situation that should not have happened.
Killing Mr. Blackwood is a senseless act I can never undo, and the finality and irrevocable
nature of the act fills me with feelings of shame and regret. I am responsible for Mr. Blackwood’s
death, and for his family's pain, suffering, and anguish. Over the years since that fateful night, I have reflected with sorrow and regret, attempting to come to grips with the full extent of the hurt, pain, and suffering I have caused to others in my ignorance and selfishness. I think of the family of Errol Blackwood everyday, and I’m ashamed that I entered their lives as a living nightmare and caused the death of their loved one. They lost forever a son and brother, and I am deeply sorry.
During my incarceration, I’ve had the opportunity to take a long, hard, critical look at my life
and have been forced to face the consequences of my actions. As my vision began to clear, I began to realize that in this life we all have a burden to bear and that we each must struggle with our shame. After my conviction for murder, I struggled to understand my actions which brought me to that point in life. I finally began to realize that to be better I had to do better. I began to understand that I cannot change what I have done, but I can surely work towards never repeating my actions. I thus began my long journey toward self-realization.
A driving initial force in my involvement was self-help programs and projects created and
designed by prisoners and volunteers to address issues of crime and delinquency. My participation in these types of programs have assisted me in my quest to foster a stronger sense of community, help others take responsibility for their actions (as well as learn from them), and ultimately to change my own life. The concept of "each one teach one" comes to mind in this learning process, for it encourages one to take a critical look at their lives, where they come from and seeks to address the negative influences from antisocial behavior and attitudes. Helping others has helped me to better understand myself and my place in life. Throughout the course of my imprisonment, I have participated in and sought to encourage other young men behind these walls to become more responsible in their thinking, behavior, and interactions with other people. This work began during my time with the NAACP, where I served in a variety of positions, including law clerk and vice-president of legal affairs.
However, none of the work that I have done would have been possible without the Quakers. In the mid 80’s, I began to take notice of a group of volunteers who entered the prison every Friday. I soon learned that they were Quakers, members of the New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. I noticed their concern for people and they truly seemed to listen to what a person had to say. Out of curiosity, I attended a Quaker Worship Service to learn more about their faith and recognized that through non-judgment, they have helped me to see the good in myself and the value of such goodness towards others. When I learned that Quakers were the originators of the Alternatives to Violence Program, I immediately signed up and enjoyed the program immensely. I attended and completed both the basic and advanced training of their Alternative to Violence Program workshops twice (once in Green Haven in the late 80's early 90's
and once again in Auburn in 2013-14). This program helped me to better understand, embrace, and strengthen alternative ways of resolving conflict.
Someone once said when you come to a fork in the road, take it. The passing of my mother in 2004 was the final fork in the road for me, and I decided to direct my energies towards Light with the Quakers instead of wandering in the darkness. Though I was as devastated by losing my mother as I had ever been, I chose to respond differently than after losing my sister and father. This was possible because of the tools of understanding the hardships of life that I had gained from my study with the Quakers. I had learned in life everyone and everything has a purpose.
The most fundamental tenet of the Quakers is “There is that of God in Everyone.” As I understand it, the force behind creation is not only from God but also of God, and all of life as we know it makes us who we are. That is to say, we were all created equal. I began to feel a sense of wholeness in me, at first not clearly identifying what it was I felt, but I began to experience a sense of self-worth. I had begun to feel better about myself, but with the continued guilt of responsibility for the life I had taken, I knew I still had work to do.
Over the years, the Quaker faith has helped me to further understand that redemption comes in all kinds of ways and at all times. I began to understand that sympathy for others and myself was no substitute for action in helping and doing for others. My training as an Inmate Program Associate Facilitator helped me in clearing a path for service unto others. When I was
transferred from Green Haven to Great Meadows in 1997, it was the Quakers who, ever present, persistently assisted me in keeping my head above the water line and helped me stay focused.
The final step in my transition, after years of deep introspection, was to finally become a member of the Quakers in 2016. I returned to Green Haven in 2014 which allowed greater in-person visits with the Bulls Head-Oswego Monthly Meeting. I requested consideration for membership in June 2016 and went through the formal application and interview process. I was formally accepted as a member of the Bulls Head-Oswego Monthly Meeting of the New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) on November 20, 2016. They will be there to support me upon my release and for all times thereafter. I have a deep sense of responsibility to live up to the principles of the Quakers and to the Meeting of which I am a member, which I have come to accept as being my spiritual home. I recognize a debt I have had to pay to society for the wrong I committed in my life. I believe I can be an asset and help others, guided by the Quaker Testimonies (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship) as my life's calling.
If granted clemency, I look forward to joining my fellow Quakers in Meeting weekly. I will also participate in mid-week Meeting and Worship on Fridays. I have been the beneficiary of the Prisons Committee and would hope to join their work from the outside, contributing to a group that has had a more progressive impact in my life. Without the love and support of the Quakers, I do not know what I would be. They entered my life as an ocean of Light. I also hope to be able to
participate in mentoring young people, particularly young people that are in similar circumstances and mindsets as I was as a young man.
In my early years I was blind but did not know it and deaf to the voice of reason that exists within me, as we all share. I knew right from wrong but paid no attention to the signs before me. It
was with the help of the Quakers that I began to put some sense of structure into my life. My sense of spirit needed nurturing to work on completing the process of becoming whole again and filling the void within me. Such guidance helped me to better understand and begin the walk on a path towards a deeper understanding of the gift of life we all share.
I have realized that we all are in this world together, and in order to make it a more fruitful place, we must work together towards a common objective. I have transformed from a person who thinks only of “I-me” into a person who seeks to live the life of “us-we.” A respect for the sacredness of life, in all of its joys and sorrows, guides me. I will never fully reconcile my feelings of guilt for Mr. Blackwood’s death, and to this day feel shame for his death. There is still work to be done (l always will be a work in progress) but the blessing of it all is to know that change is present in my life and there are others who have noticed and recognized it. All I can do now is be proud of what little I have achieved and be prepared to give the strength and provide support to those less fortunate than me tomorrow.
I cannot change the senseless acts of my past, but I can surely influence the progress of
tomorrow, and life seems so much better when I can contribute to the greater good. I am not alone in this venture, for the Religious Society of Friends have committed themselves to providing whatever nurturing support and assistance I may need. I do not know what tomorrow may bring but I do know that I will be a better person than I was today.