Juan Johnson says he is grateful to the jury and his attorneys for the large award. The 39-year-old says he was framed by a Chicago police detective who specialized in gang investigations.
Johnson was convicted and eventually acquitted of beating to death a man with a two-by-four. Despite that, city of Chicago lawyers do not believe Johnson is innocent.
"Statesville is pure hell. You are surrounded among the worst. I didn't expect to survive. I gave up hope," said Johnson.
He may have given up hope but Juan Johnson's lawyers never did. Johnson was 19 when he was sentenced to a 30 year prison term for a 1989 Humboldt Park murder he says he didn't commit. Five years ago, a jury acquitted him in a retrial and on Monday, a federal jury awarded Johnson with the largest wrongful conviction jury award in Chicago history.
"What we proved in this federal case that his conviction was not an accident but he was a victim of police misconduct by Officer Guevara," said Jon Loevy, Johnson's attorney
Johnson's attorneys claim the now retired Area 5 Chicago Police Detective Reynaldo Guevara framed Johnson.
"This is a murder that happened in a public place. There were 150 witnesses, there's all kinds of physical evidence. He managed to close it in a couple of hours, getting people who didn't even see it to point the finger at Juan Johnson," said Loevy.
But city of Chicago lawyers say that is not what happened. They believe Johnson would never have been awarded $21 million had the federal jury heard critical evidence about witnesses.
"What they weren't told was that two witnesses, who later changed their stories years later, were forced to do so by gang leaders. That was the evidence that the judge excluded," said Jim Sotos, City of Chicago attorney.
While Juan Johnson's lawyers and others say there are several complaints against Guevara, the city says Guevara was a good officer who was targeted by gangs.
"What they do is manipulate the court system through intimidating witnesses and they force witnesses to change their testimony," said Sotos.
City lawyers say the 1989 murder Juan Johnson was arrested for was over a gang dispute. The city says Johnson was part of a gang back then and is currently a gang member. Johnson's lawyers say that is not the case.
Meantime, Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions is investigating more than 40 alleged frame-ups by Detective Guevara.