Johnnie Lee Savory believes in justice for all, but he’s more focused on recognizing injustice all over the world for people like himself who have been wrongly convicted of crimes and have lost their years, their innocence and their human rights because of it.
Savory was convicted of a double murder in Peoria, Illinois in 1977 at the age of 14 and spent 30 years of a 50-100 year bit behind bars for it before being paroled in 2006 because of overwhelming suggestion of his innocence. Savory has yet to be exonerated, but the results of DNA testing on evidence in his case that is expected to clear his name is forthcoming.
“It only took 30 seconds for me to lose my life when the police snatched me, now it’s taken me 30 years to get it back,” Savory says. It took his attorneys 15 years to get the courts to even allow the DNA testing, and that was just agreed to in August of last year, 2013.
After school let out on Monday, January 17, 1977, Johnnie Lee Savory visited his classmate James Scopy Robinson’s home for the first time. Though the high-schoolers, both 14, had known each other since third grade, they lived several miles from each other in Peoria, Illinois and John’s visit to James’ place just had never happened.
“This particular day, James said, ‘Man, come on, go home with me,’ and I said okay,” recalls Savory, now 52 years old. James’ mother and stepfather were home, as was his 19-year-old sister, Connie Cooper, a student at Bradley University.
“We ate some hot dogs and corn and played and stuff,” says Savory. “We drew some pictures for his mother. We both thought we were artists, so we were asking her which one was the best, you know.”
The young boys played on until 10 or 10:30 p.m. before saying good-bye. They had lost track of time and because the buses in Peoria stopped running at 7 p.m. back then, Johnnie had to walk some miles to get home, and there was already winter snow on the ground.
“But it was alright. It was my friend and we had fun,” Savory said. “So we made plans to meet the next day…but it never happened.” The next afternoon, January 18, James and his sister Connie were found stabbed to death in their home.
The Nightmare Begins
A week later, on January 25, Peoria police pulled Savory out of school and detained and interrogated him for nearly two days – after he said he didn’t want to talk to them, without a lawyer being present, without allowing him to leave even though they said he wasn’t a suspect, after he passed an initial polygraph test and after Savory said they plucked hairs from all over his naked body with tweezers – for forensic reasons, they told him – until he gave an oral confession, though he refused to sign any statement.
Savory went to trial in July 1977 and prosecutors asked for the death penalty, at age 14. They contended that Johnnie had been in the home the morning of the murder practicing karate with James, who they say he killed during an argument before blacking out and killing his sister.
The court denied the death penalty, but the all-White jury found Savory guilty in just two hours and the court sentenced him to 50-100 years, the equivalent of life. He had alibis from several people he had been with the day of the murder, but was convicted based on his illegal and coerced confession.
In April 1980, an appellate court unanimously found Savory’s confession to be bogus, as it was involuntarily given, and it was a ruling that was upheld by the Illinois and United States Supreme Courts after the state appealed. Johnnie’s case was reversed and kicked back to Peoria.
In 1981, the Peoria Journal Star newspaper quoted Hon. Michael Mihms, Peoria’s State’s Attorney in 1977, as saying “Without the confession it’s impossible to retry Johnnie Savory, so that’s it, he won’t be retried.”
John Barra, Peoria’s State’s Attorney in 1981, told the paper, “Without the confession, there is no evidence to tie Savory to the crime, or the scene of the crime.”
Aside from the confession, the only evidence was a pair of bloodstained pants several sizes too big for Savory. They belonged to his father. “They took his pants, not my pants,” Savory says. “My dad was 250 pounds, 5-foot-10. I was barely 5-feet tall, and weighed 110 pounds.”
There was also a small knife with minute traces of blood, considered to be the murder weapon, but which also belonged to Savory’s father. And finally, hair was found in both victims’ hands, but it didn’t match either victim, or Savory, according to a criminologist testifying at the 1977 trial.
Just when it seemed the nightmare was ending for Savory, lo and behold, three witnesses suddenly popped up – siblings from the Ivy family who lived in the community – who swore that Johnnie had made admissions to each of them on separate occasions on the day of the murders regarding the deaths and his involvement in them.
Based on that, a second trial was ordered for Savory, again asking for the death penalty. Largely based on the Ivy’s testimony, he was convicted again and sentenced to 40-80 years.
After that second trial, all three Ivy siblings eventually recanted their testimony, saying they lied. But Johnnie Lee Savory remained in prison for 30 years until 2006, when he was finally paroled, thanks to the help of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, after being denied parole 26 times previously.
Savory was in prison from the age of 14 until he was 44 – two-thirds of his life, almost 11,000 days – railroaded by the criminal justice system. What galls him is the role Black people played in throwing him under the bus.
It’s believed, and reportedly there was a deathbed confession, that the murders were committed by a member of a prominent Black family in Peoria, and Johnnie was used as a scapegoat to protect them, especially because he was the last person from outside the home to have seen the victims alive the night before and it was easy to pin the rap on him.
Complicit in this frame-up, Savory believes, were Black officers on Peoria’s police force, one of who had personal animosities towards Johnnie’s father.
“The police knew I wasn’t guilty. My community knew I wasn’t guilty because the mothers, the grandmothers, the big sisters, the aunts – all the women came out in full force to support me, to get me lawyers,” says Savory. He says that his godmother Octavia Marie Burchett, in particular stood like a beacon in his defense, as did the white Vielburgs, a prominent Peoria family. “But the Black men didn’t. The Black men were on the other side, with the police,” Savory says.
It was a Black detective, he claims, “who forced the three witnesses – who did not appear at the first trial – to testify falsely that I had made admissions to them about the murder. I have affidavits from all three witnesses saying that two individuals, one being this particular Black cop, forced them into testifying. The juvenile prosecutor at the time testified that these witnesses couldn’t have known anything.
“We have never held those accountable in our communities for the lies and things they have done to us,” Savory continues. “We’re walking around always blaming the White man. The White man didn’t do this one, partner. You did this because you disliked the one you saw in the mirror – not me – because I didn’t do anything to you. Nothing.”
And yet, there he was, locked up for as long as he could envision.
“Even though I was serving time, I wasn’t supposed to be there,” Savory says. “I was supposed to finish high school, graduate, go on to college or whatever my life would have been set up to do, according to my dream. That dream was interfered with. And there were not a lot of people in my situation in the country at the time. I was 14 years old and convicted of a double murder.”
In prison, Savory completed his GED, started college and earned two vocational education certificates in electronics and auto bodywork. He says so matter-of-factly, seemingly not angry, not bitter, and if you didn’t know his story, from outward appearances, you’d never guess his story.
“But I did go through those emotions,” Savory says. “I was bitter. I was angry. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t process what had just happened. So I started reading anything I could get my hands on that had something to do with, or that my life paralleled in some kind of way, to help me to understand what had happened to me.
“I had to go on a new journey. The journey took me to the 1930s, to the Scottsboro Boys and the mothers of those boys. There was no question that they knew they were innocent. They hadn’t done anything to those two women. Emmett Till – we were born on the same day in the same month. We both were 14 years old when we suffered a mockery of justice.”
The biblical story of Joseph, falsely imprisoned yet showing no anger while being steadily protected and anointed by God, is what Savory most identifies with. “I can only contribute my journey to the grace of God, period. Nothing else,” he says. “God communicated with me and sent me good people inside and outside.”
Those good people helped Savory build a groundswell of support that helped lead him to freedom. In prison he worked tirelessly to “let everyone know every day that I was there that I wasn’t supposed to be there,” in his words.
Savory made videos of his case that he sent to media and wrote letters about his innocence to people all over the world. And he got one key response, from U.S. District Judge Prentice Marshall Sr., who asked his law firm, Jenner & Block, to look into the case.
Their participation snowballed the public support for Johnnie and soon, added to his base of Peoria believers came top names like former Illinois Gov. James Thompson; U.S. Senator Adlai Stevenson III; five former U.S. Attorneys, including Thomas Sullivan, Dan Webb, Sam Skinner, Anton Valukas, and Scott Lassar; Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, and authors John Grisham and Studs Terkel.
Steven Drizin, legal director at the time for Northwestern’s Center For Wrongful Convictions of which Rob Warden is executive director, secured Savory’s parole and brought him home from jail, with valuable assistance from attorneys Josh Tepfer and Laura Nirider. Unfortunately, the Hon. Judge Marshall died in 2004, two years before he could see the innocent man to whom he lent a hand released from prison.
Justice and Innocence
Since Savory has been freed, he spends his time volunteering with Northwestern’s Center to help those newly released from prison to re-integrate back into society by securing documentation for them and the like.
He also works security for Operation PUSH and is an occasional special aide to Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. Through the efforts of his long-time friend Jonathan Jackson – they used to play chess together – Savory went to PUSH and has created a platform to help give the innocent a voice.
He sits on the re-entry committee for the Chicago Coalition for the homeless and spent three years with St. Leonard’s Ministries’ re-entry program on the West Side. Savory attends the Innocence Network Conference every year as a guest of Northwestern and is a welcome fixture as a motivational, inspirational, and authoritative speaker on the exoneration and Innocence Projects scene, even though he’s not been exonerated himself…yet. He’s spoken at Harvard University about his experiences.
Savory says that when he goes around to various speaking engagements, people often say, “Well, Johnnie, you’ll be so happy when you get justice.”
“I say, ‘Justice from where?’ I can’t get any justice. If you’re innocent but convicted and sentenced to prison, you do not receive justice. I can get truth, but I can’t get any justice. Justice is a preventive measure to keep injustice from taking place.
“Anyway, I’m not looking for justice. I’m only looking to make it right. You took 30 years of my life – how do you justify it. You cannot. The only thing that can make it right is by telling the truth, that what we did to him is wrong.”
Savory notes that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were set up to prevent the wheels of justice from ever squeaking.
“In the sixth amendment, there is the compulsory right to a fair trial. In the 13th amendment, it says no one should be held in involuntary servitude unless duly convicted. Duly means fair. That means you do not plant evidence. Prosecutors do not conspire to coerce witnesses to commit subordination perjury. Prosecutors do not block the administration of justice from going forward by misusing their elected or appointed power,” Johnnie says.
“That means if you have DNA going in the door, when you do your forensic evidence, you talk to your witnesses – you do all those investigative things before you even charge a person with a crime. That’s how it’s supposed to be. You can only receive justice when they do the right thing in the process from the beginning. Proper investigation, admissible evidence – when you fabricate those things, you are committing a crime,” says Savory.
“Justice is a vanguard that protects the truth and your human rights. We’re not talking about a violation of my Constitutional and civil rights – we know you violated those already. But you violated my most important right – my human right. You took that away, you kidnapped me from society, and you didn’t have any right to do that.”
Timothy Cole’s Tragedy
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, there have been 1,409 exonerations in the United States since 1989, cases in which a wrongly convicted person was cleared of all charges based on new evidence of innocence.
DNA testing has exonerated 317 of them since Chicago’s Gary Dotson was the first person cleared by DNA in 1989, according to innocenceproject.org. Of those 317 exonerated by DNA, 199 are Black. The average length of time they wrongly served was 13.5 years and the total number of wrong years they served was 4,249. Testing also identified the real crime perpetrators in 154 of the DNA cases.
Savory wonders how many have died behind bars already before DNA testing could save them. He has good reason to ponder that question because of the tragedy of Timothy Cole.
The African-American Army veteran and Texas Tech University student died in a Texas prison in 1999 while serving a 25-year sentence for the rape of a fellow student that he didn’t commit.
DNA evidence cleared his name 10 years later in 2009, thanks to the work of the Innocence Project of Texas, but Cole died of a severe asthma attack at the age of 39 after serving 14 years behind bars.
Not only did the DNA clear Cole, but a convicted rapist who was implicated by the DNA testing had confessed to the rape in several letters sent to court officials that dated back to 1995, four years before Cole died.
Some good – if there can be such a thing in a situation like this – came from Cole’s misfortune. This first posthumous DNA exoneration in Texas’ history led to numerous changes in Texas law, as well as the state’s first posthumous pardon, by Gov. Rick Perry in 2010.
A bill was passed in Cole’s name in 2009 making those falsely convicted of a crime eligible for $80,000 for each year of incarceration and providing them with free college tuition. The bill also established a panel to study the causes of wrongful convictions and devise ways to prevent them.
Cole’s family received about $1.1 million for his wrongful imprisonment and an apology last December from Lubbock, Texas, the city that wrongfully convicted him. However, the apology came two months after Cole’s mother died.
Next month, on September 17, exactly 28 years after Cole’s conviction, the city of Lubbock and the Innocence Project of Texas will unveil a 10-foot-tall bronze Timothy Cole Memorial Statue on the Texas Tech campus. The area will also be dedicated as the Tim Cole Memorial Park.
Savory is planning to attend the event out of respect and to speak at the ceremony if he is allowed.
Savory also points to Patsy Ramsey, mother of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, the child beauty contestant whose still unsolved murder on Christmas night 1996 placed the Ramsey parents under a worldwide torrent of suspicion for involvement in the crime.
A new type of DNA testing not available at the time of JonBenet’s death officially cleared the Ramseys of involvement in 2008, but Patsy died two years earlier from ovarian cancer, still under a cloud of suspicion as a suspect in the killing of her child.
The Innocence Tour And Mission
“The wheels of justice turn slowly for those waiting in the balance to be exonerated,” Savory says. It’s clear that his experience has made innocence and exoneration his mission, probably for the rest of his days.
The fruits of his unfortunate labor are already showing. Since the beginning of his ordeal 37 years ago, Savory has sought to clear his name through testing of evidence, but the courts denied him.
When Illinois passed its DNA statue in 1998 offering testing to those who claim wrongful conviction, Johnnie was first in line in the state to seek testing, but he was denied until last year. His case, however, led to a broad interpretation of the DNA statute that enabled hundreds of other wrongfully convicted defendants to get DNA testing, many of whom have been exonerated.
Also, his coerced confession at the age of 14 was among a number of similar cases that led to changes in Illinois law in 2003 and 2013 calling for the electronic recording of juvenile confessions.
Next year, in May 2015, Savory plans to take his show on the road with his Innocence Tour, which is patterned after Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid. He will be an evangelist and advocate for innocence, raising awareness and money for the cause as he travels the country.
“I’m trying to get sponsorship to buy a bus (or two), put the American flag on one side, the Bill of Rights on the other side, put some innocent people’s faces in the stars, and tour the country,” Savory says. “I want to go to each Innocence Project in each state and highlight two cases they currently have to bring awareness to this whole situation.”
Savory’s fledgling Innocence Project is currently the only Black one in the world, following the late Hurricane Carter’s effort in Canada.
“It’s time that innocence has a voice from within. It has not had that,” Johnnie says. “But innocence is spreading, let me tell you. There’s an Innocence Project in every state, in Canada, and now in South Africa, Europe, China, and Nicaragua – that’s how fast it’s spreading.
“You’ve never seen this many people exonerated before. All over the world, you’re going to recognize injustice. That day is here already and you can’t do anything to stop it. It’s our job. It’s our watch. It’s our time. I’m not here by coincidence. The scales of justice weren’t balanced for me, but God balanced me out.
“I believe this: it’s never God’s design for you to suffer anything, and what man did for evil in my life, God turned it around and gave it purpose and meaning for goodness. God is using me to raise the consciousness as to what we’re allowing to take place in our community, across this country and outside this country,” Savory says.
“God most definitely is using me and so many others to right the wrongs of man as it pertains to those being kidnapped from their homes and schools and jobs and what have you, so I am standing with those who historically would stand against those who would wrong you.”
(For more information on the Johnnie Savory case, visit his website at thesavoryfiles.org.)