One July night in 1995, Deputy Sheriff William G. Hardy was shot behind the Crown Sterling Suites hotel in Birmingham, Alabama. At the same time as the murder, at least ten people saw Toforest Johnson four miles away, at a popular nightclub called Tee’s Place. But detectives zeroed in on him as a main suspect in Deputy Hardy’s murder anyway, ultimately resulting in Toforest being tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. For over a quarter century, Toforest has been confined to a 5’ by 8’ cell on Alabama’s death row.
In 2019, investigative journalist Beth Shelburne began covering the case, going down a disturbing rabbit hole revealing many unsettling facts that cast grave doubts about Toforest’s guilt. The facts she found tear at the very foundation of the American criminal justice system: No eyewitnesses or physical evidence tied Toforest to the murder; the state tried to convict a different man for the same crime; and perhaps most disturbing of all, Toforest’s conviction relied on an ‘earwitness’ – a woman who claimed to have eavesdropped on an incriminating phone call, a woman whom prosecutors paid for her testimony, in secret. That payment was not disclosed to the jury, Toforest, or his lawyers until after he had been on death row for 17 years.
From the team behind the award-winning hit podcast Bone Valley, Lava for Good’s Earwitness is an 8-episode docuseries that asks the question, “How did an innocent man end up on death row — and why is the state still trying to execute him over the objection of the prosecutor who put him there?” Shelburne’s unprecedented access to key players—the lead detective, lead prosecutor, witnesses, jurors, and the earwitness herself— illuminate a story filled with disturbing twists, frustrating ambiguities, and shocking admissions. The story of Toforest Johnson and the state’s enthusiasm for the death penalty in the face of such troubling evidentiary flaws brings to light the failings of a criminal justice system run amok.
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