Human Rights

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.

"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."

"It was like an agreement that he had to be killed," says Pearson, " … which just kind of makes your skin crawl."

The extradition agreement was signed by Illinois' Secretary of State George Ryan. Four years later, however, as governor of Illinois, Ryan famously emptied death row, commuting all death sentences to life without parole and pardoning four innocent prisoners. Already sick with MS, Johnson's sentence was commuted to 40 years. Despite the executive agreement with California, Johnson stayed where he was.

Why Illinois failed to keep up its end of the death pact is unclear.

"They either forgot, or they decided not to, or something," says Pearson. "Whatever they did, they violated the agreement … Gov. Ryan signed it, so he could not say he was ignorant of it. My guess is they just screwed up, and since Montell was still in prison, nobody made a big fuss about it."

Until now.

"They told me that they were going to send a plane to come get Montell," says Gloria, who, with the help of his attorneys, has requested a "compassionate clemency" for Johnson from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. " … We're just waiting to see what the governor does."

Last month, Hoyt wrote a letter to Schwarzenegger asking him to grant clemency to Johnson: "I personally feel, for several reasons, Mr. Johnson was 'underhandedly' kept in Illinois and brutalized by Illinois Dept. of Corrections, almost dying in Nov. 2007," she wrote. "Mr. Johnson has chronic progressive multiple sclerosis, weights 70 lb.., is almost completely paralyzed, cannot talk, has to be fed through a feeding tube, requires daily doctor visits and 24 x 7 skilled nursing care.

On Oct. 30, 2008, Illinois Gov. Blagojevich commuted the sentence/pardoned Mr. Johnson, and I am told, it had a lot to do with my constant support of Mr. Johnson's innocence in my daughter's murder. I am now appealing to you, Sir, please grant Montell Johnson clemency, so that he can go home and be with his family for the final few days he might have left to live. This would give me 'some' peace in my heart, that I have succeeded in reaping 'some' justice for my daughter after all these years.

"Montell Was Not Cared For Properly"

Gloria's first run-in with the health care provided by Illinois' Department of Corrections was in 1999, when her son was awaiting trial in a Macon County jail. She had attended a wedding reception in Grand Rapids, Mich., when she received word from her mother that Montell had fallen and been knocked unconscious. She drove to the Decatur, Ill., jail, only to be barred from visiting him. By the time she saw him, it was Tuesday. "I asked Montell what they gave him. He said, 'Tylenol.' "

In January 2001, Johnson was diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. By then, he was at Menard Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison that Gloria describes as "a death trap." As the illness took effect, he was transferred to different facilities, none of which were equipped to deal with his deteriorating health. Between 2001 and 2005, he was not seen by a neurologist.

By 2005, he could not stand, walk, bathe or dress himself. Despite this, he remained in the condemned unit at Menard, designated a "high escape risk." Eventually, he was transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center, where, in February 2006, he was diagnosed with dementia.

Finally, in April 2006, Johnson was transferred to Dixon Correctional Facility, supposedly, the best medical facility in the Illinois prison system.

"I'd been begging to put him there," Gloria recalled. "But that was his death sentence."

It was at Dixon that Johnson developed severe bedsores, which Gloria discovered in 2006. He had been complaining about being in pain. "When I rolled him over," recalls Gloria, "I saw the wounds."

Bed sores are preventable but serious injuries that can be life threatening if left untreated. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Bedsores, more accurately called pressure sores or pressure ulcers, are areas of damaged skin and tissue that develop when sustained pressure -- usually from a bed or wheelchair -- cuts off circulation to vulnerable parts of your body." For someone who is bedridden, bedsores can form anywhere, from one's lower back to the rims of one's ears. The key to avoiding them is to move a patient continually throughout the course of the day. Nutrition is also important. But Johnson was getting neither. The result was Stage Four bed sores, the most serious and advanced stage, "in which a large-scale loss of skin occurs, along with damage to muscle, bone and even supporting structures such as tendons and joints."

"Montell was not cared for properly by the Department of Corrections," says Pearson, the activist. "Really, they just couldn't take care of him. They were not equipped."

After Gloria saw the bedsores, she became much more vigilant about her son's care. In August 2007, she started a blog documenting her visits with him, detailing his condition, the state of his care and her many frustrating interactions with the prison warden and medical staff, who eventually discovered the blog and tried to get it taken down.

Early posts described the strange visiting area allocated to her and her son at Dixon, a "laundry room with a washing machine, dryer and dirty and clean linen."

8/29/07 -- Today I visited Montell. When I arrived at the infirmary Montell, was in the gerry chair, and he looked very uncomfortable. He tried to change his position from left to right. He was nonverbal and tears were streaming down his face. The washing machine and dyer was running and quite noisy, and this seemed to be irritating him. I asked him if anybody had done anything to him and he shook his head as to be saying "No." I asked him if he had received all his meals, he shook his head from side to side.

Subsequent entries chronicled the many times she was denied visiting privileges for seemingly arbitrary reasons, as well as Johnson's transfer, in the fall of 2007, from the correctional unit to a medical unit, where he nearly died. A post from Nov. 6, 2007 describes the day his feeding tube was put in. The next day, she wrote:

The rumor I heard yesterday became a reality today. Yes, Montell was going to be taken back to Dixon Correctional Center sometime today. I talked with Dr. Amissi Patel, and she stated that Montell was too weak to have any more surgeries and that they were releasing him. I told her that with the feeding tube in him they were just setting him up to die. He wouldn't have been in this condition in the first place if they had taken care of him. I spent most of the day trying to contact people to have them stop this move back to Dixon. Montell just laid in my arms and held my hand … I stayed until the ambulance people came to get him and helped dress him for the trip back to Dixon. I left before they did because I couldn't take seeing them take him back there, and I didn't want him to see the tears streaming down my face. Lord please help us.

The last post on the blog, dated Dec. 19, 2007, begins: "My visiting privileges revoked today because of my concern and expressions of Montell's health care."

"The Last Thing California Needs is Another Sick Prisoner"

Anyone familiar with California's prison system knows that it is the last state that should be taking on the care of another sick prisoner. The state has been besieged for years by reports that its bloated prison system -- which houses 170,000 people in facilities built for 100,000 -- is overwhelmed by the number of prisoners in need of health care, many of them elderly. In fact, California's prison medical facilities are currently under receivership, which Johnson's attorney Harold Hirshman explains, "means literally that a federal judge has appointed a person outside the prison system to run the delivery of medical care." The current receiver, J. Clark Kelso, has described California's medical facilities as being "in an abysmal state of disrepair." (The cost of repair, as reported this spring by the Los Angeles Times, "nearly triples the $2.5 billion the governor proposed for new medical facilities in his budget submitted to lawmakers in January.")

"The last thing California needs, given that it's under receivership for failing to provide constitutional minimum health care, is another sick prisoner to take care of," says Hirshman. Yet, he says, "logic doesn't seem to have much to do with any of these decisions. I believe that it is simply that he's a murderer in California, so they want to take him back."

"We Don't Want Any Other Mothers To Go Through This"

Terry Hoyt moved to Florida three years ago, but, as she has before, she is fighting alongside Gloria and her son's advocates to stop California from taking him back. "Number one, they don't have the money for this," she says. "Number two, he would never make it." Indeed, Johnson is so frail that everyone agrees his body could not withstand the cross-country journey from Illinois to California.

Hoyt, who first met Gloria at Johnson's trial, has felt a kinship with her from the start. "I couldn't help that, because any mother in that position -- she didn't do anything. Even if he had done it, there was something that just told me. … I just felt so bad for her."

Gloria approached Hoyt in the courtroom. "She said, 'I'm really sorry if my son did this. I don't think he is capable of this.' " The two got to know each other little by little. Today, says Gloria "she's like a sister to me."

"It's not just about Montell and Dorianne anymore," says Hoyt, "It's, 'oh my God, we don't want any other mothers to go through this.' "

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