Af­ter clemency, Alice John­son grate­ful, fo­cused on new life

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By ADRIAN SAINZ

MEM­PHIS, Tenn. - The hype over the com­mu­ta­tion of her life sen­tence by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump at the re­quest of Kim Kar­dashian West has started to die down. Now, Alice Marie John­son turns to a much harder task: be­gin­ning a nor­mal life out­side of prison.

John­son wasted lit­tle time dur­ing her two decades be­hind bars, tak­ing classes on elec­tri­cal work and per­sonal train­ing, earn­ing a cer­ti­fi­ca­tion in hos­pice care, and chore­ograph­ing dances for prison shows. At age 63, she has a job lined up as an of­fice ad­min­is­tra­tor at a den­tist's of­fice.

She's con­fi­dent and happy, smil­ing widely dur­ing in­ter­views and do­ing a lit­tle dance in her chair be­tween ap­pear­ances on morn­ing TV pro­grams. She prom­ises not to waste her op­por­tu­nity for a new life af­ter her re­lease from a fed­eral prison in Alabama.

She knows oth­ers might not get that chance. “I feel that I owe it to the peo­ple that I left be­hind. Their voices have not been mag­ni­fied the way that my voice is,” she said. “So, I'm go­ing to work hard to make a dif­fer­ence. I hope that as peo­ple see my suc­cess story back into so­ci­ety, that it will help oth­ers to be set free.”

John­son was con­victed in 1996 on eight crim­i­nal counts re­lated to a Mem­phis-based, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar co­caine traf­fick­ing op­er­a­tion in­volv­ing more than a dozen peo­ple.The 1994 in­dict­ment de­scribes dozens of de­liv­er­ies and drug trans­ac­tions, many in­volv­ing John­son. Fed­eral courts, in­clud­ing the Supreme Court, re­jected her ap­peals. Prose­cu­tors op­posed a pend­ing re­duc­tion in her sen­tence, cit­ing fed­eral guide­lines based on the large quan­tity of drugs in­volved. “I will never for­get hav­ing that door slam shut be­hind me, and know­ing that free­dom had just been cut off,” she said. “It took me just a mo­ment, but I re­al­ized that I had to, I had to, get a grip even on my emo­tions, and I de­cided to turn it around and make the best of the sit­u­a­tion be­cause I re­fused to al­low any­thing to take my life.”

Kar­dashian West took up her cause, and pre­sented her case to the pres­i­dent. Trump granted clemency, mak­ing John­son in­stantly fa­mous. She says Kar­dashian West saved her life and that Trump gave her “mercy.”

She united with fam­ily and friends on Wednesday night, with a big meal of spaghetti, fried cat­fish, cole slaw, chicken and dough­nuts. Next on her agenda, a “fat, juicy steak.”

But she has more on her plate in the days ahead. John­son plans to do what­ever she can to push for sen­tenc­ing re­form for first-time, non-vi­o­lent of­fend­ers. Her mes­sage to them: “Do not give up your hope.”

“Con­tinue to make the best of the sit­u­a­tion, be­cause you never know when some­thing is go­ing to change,” John­son said. “I feel the winds of change com­ing in prison re­form, and just to be pre­pared to walk out that door.”

John­son spent the fol­low­ing day do­ing in­ter­views. She saw her first Mem­phis sun­rise in two decades, and mar­veled at the way the city and so­ci­ety had changed.

“One of the things that's amaz­ing to me is ev­ery­one has a phone. It seems that they're look­ing down at their phones, they're tex­ting, they're do­ing some­thing,” she said. “I never saw that be­fore.”

Her grand­son, Justin John­son, 23, was about 1 1/2 years old when his grand­mother en­tered prison. The day she got out, he said, was “just a blur.”

John­son said he wants to take his grand­mother on a walk by the river. He said Kar­dashian West “was the trac­tion that we needed, not only for my grand­mother ,but also for prison re­form in the fu­ture.''

John­son said he hopes that Trump's par­don is not seen as “some­thing that he's do­ing just to get into the good graces of the black com­mu­nity.” “Per­son­ally, I feel like this isn't re­ally a race mat­ter for my grand­mother,” he said. “I feel like this is just a mat­ter of tak­ing the next step for­ward and try­ing to get our jus­tice sys­tem in a bet­ter po­si­tion.”


Alice Marie John­son speaks out on be­ing re­leased from prison af­ter more than two decades.

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