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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.

Montell Johnson is a 42-year-old man who spends every hour of every day in a hospital bed. He can't move, and he can't talk. He eats through a feeding tube inserted into his stomach. Years of inactivity have taken their toll: "He has no body tissue or muscle now," his mother, Gloria, says. "He's very sensitive to touch, and so it's excruciating pain when you touch his body … There's nothing really there to protect him." He weighs 70 lbs.

Johnson suffers from multiple sclerosis, a chronic and debilitating illness that attacks the central nervous system and erodes a person's capacity for basic functions. He is in the final stages of MS and is suffering from a long list of related and other ailments, including hepatitis C, which threatens to take his life. Just over a year ago, a doctor gave Johnson less than six months to live. That he has defied the prognosis is undoubtedly due to the dedicated care of his mother, rather than the quality of his medical care. That's because Johnson is not at a hospital. He is a prisoner at Sheridan Correctional Center, in La Salle County, Ill.

Five days a week, Gloria Johnson-Ester drives from her home on the South Side of Chicago to Sheridan, two hours away ("two-and-a-half to three in traffic"). Since her son was diagnosed with MS in 2001, she has seen his health deteriorate dramatically due to gross medical neglect by the Illinois prison system.

"Inmates aren't considered a priority," she says, "but I always tell people, they are human beings. … Whether they are guilty or innocent, when they get sick, you treat them."

Johnson was convicted of murder in 1999 and sent to death row. In 2003, his sentence was commuted to 40 years, and on Oct. 30, 2008, Gov. Rod Blagojevich commuted his sentence to time served. This means the state of Illinois has no legal basis for keeping him incarcerated. But now he faces a new challenge: the possibility of extradition to California for a different charge. For Gloria, who has been fighting for years to bring her son home for the last months of his life, this would be an unthinkable defeat.

"I know one thing," she says. "If they take me away, then he'll just give up."

"An Easy Conviction"

Johnson was sentenced to die for the 1994 slaying of Dorianne Warnsley. Warnsley, 23, died a harrowing death, first shot and then beaten with a hammer and stabbed with a screwdriver. Her body was found in a cornfield in Macon County, Ill. She was five months pregnant.

Johnson has admitted that he was on the scene the night Warnsley was killed, but he insists that he did not commit the crime. To some extent, his actions belie his claims: Johnson left Illinois for California after it happened, adopted a different name, and then was arrested for another killing and robbery, getting a life sentence. When the state of Illinois sought to bring him back to be tried, he maintained his innocence. He still does.

Johnson has many supporters who believe him. Perhaps none is more significant than Terry Hoyt, Dorianne Warnsley's mother.

"The judicial system in Macon County sucks," she says over the phone on the day after Thanksgiving. "I'm not a teenager, and I'm using that word. It should be totally investigated.

"My daughter was murdered in '94. The guy who actually committed the murder was not arrested until three years later." The man she is referring to, Carlos Stokes, provided multiple confessions, only to turn around and testify against Johnson in exchange for a 15-year sentence. According to Hoyt, not only was the investigation flawed -- "The police were so far in left field it was ridiculous" -- when it came time to press charges, Johnson, who had been friends with Dorianne, was railroaded.