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Should a Terminally Ill Prisoner Have to Die Behind Bars?

Montell Johnson was sent from California to Illinois to be executed. His sentence was commuted. Now he's dying from medical neglect.

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"The prosecutor struck a deal," says Ted Pearson, a prison-reform activist in Chicago, who has spent years working on Johnson's case.

As he describes it, Stokes, Johnson, and a third woman, Sandra Dye, "had gotten into a row with the victim, and one of them, Stokes, actually murdered her. … He didn't deny that he had confessed to that, and the woman also gave statements corroborating his. But (at trial) he said that Montell told him to do it -- so that made Montell not just guilty by being there, but also guilty by directing the whole thing." Dye was never charged.

Stokes' plea bargain -- and his eventual release -- took place without Hoyt's knowledge, a violation of her rights as a crime victim that still angers her to this day. She describes how she showed up at court on the day of his scheduled trial, only to be told by the judge, "we took care of that yesterday afternoon."

"I told him and I told the state's attorney, they messed with the wrong mother," she says.

Johnson's trial lasted one week. He defended himself. Asked whether he was an effective lawyer on his own behalf, Hoyt says no. "I think it was because he was starting to get sick then with the MS," she says. "And I think he was overwhelmed, because I think he really thought that the truth would come out."

Hoyt felt she was witnessing a miscarriage of justice. "I had pictures of (Dorianne)," she recalls, "and I cried and I said, 'God please let me know that I'm not losing my mind.' I was so confused … and when you're heartbroken on top of that it's just really hard to handle."

In Hoyt's view, Johnson is serving time that belongs to Stokes: "You know why they chose Montell?" she says. "Because Montell was doing life in California -- he was an easy conviction."

"They Were Doing Their Best to Help Montell Get Killed"

Details on how Johnson ended up serving life in California are scarce. Not even his mother seems to know much about it. What is clear is that his record was less than pristine and, in 1994, he was sentenced to life for a murder and robbery of a drug dealer. He was 29 years old and defended himself, under the alias Marcellus Bates.

A few years into his life sentence, the state of Illinois sought to bring him back to face trial for the slaying of Warnsley. In December 1998, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed an extradition order to send Johnson back to Illinois. Everyone agrees that California sent Johnson to Illinois to die.

"They sent him back on the condition that they get a death penalty," says Pearson, the prison-reform activist.

Johnson's attorney, Harold C. Hirshman, concurs: "The only purpose for California sending Montell to Illinois was so that Illinois could promise to try him and obtain a death sentence," he says. "They were doing their best to help Montell get killed."

Indeed, the executive agreement between the two states, dated Dec. 4, 1998, lays it out clearly. Not only did it decree that Johnson would "be extradited forthwith to the State of Illinois for trial," but it went on:

It is further agreed that if MARCELLUS BATES a/k/a MONTELL JOHNSON shall be acquitted of all capital charges or all capital charges are dropped in the State of Illinois or, should the prosecution by the State of Illinois result in a final disposition other than the imposition of a judgment and sentence of death, he shall be returned to the State of California at the expense of the State of Illinois at the earliest reasonable time.

The agreement even specified what should happen if Johnson's sentence were to change, stipulating that "should the sentence of death received … be vacated or commuted to a final judgment other than the sentence of death, such that he is no longer sentenced to death in the State of Illinois, then he shall be made available to the State of California to remain in the custody of the California Department of Corrections."