Alice Marie Johnson’s family appreciates Kim Kardashian’s efforts to bring her home
Her son and daughter-in-law share her compelling story of mercy and hope
UPDATE: June 6, 2018 —“My mom is free,” Charles Johnson told The Undefeated when he first heard his mother Alice Marie Johnson’s most recent petition for clemency was granted today.
“I’m happy, excited and in slight disbelief. I’m so nervous,” he said on his drive to pick up his sons Justin and Xavier and wife Shontoria. The four will make the trip to Alabama to reunite with Alice Marie Johnson after spending 23 years in federal prison on a life sentence.
“I’m kind of ready to pick her up and let her move on with her life. Finally. I’m thankful more than anything.”
Alice Marie Johnson was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 after a conviction on eight criminal counts for a first-time, non-violent drug offense. Her son, Charles Johnson, remembers that time like it was yesterday.
“I was coming home from college and the court date was postponed to the next day,” Charles Johnson said. “On that day, they didn’t want the family to go, so she and her boyfriend at the time just went. A couple of hours passed and he just came home and told us that they kept her. And they found her guilty, and it was the day before my birthday, my 20th birthday.”
The guilty verdict from a jury trial changed the course of life for Johnson, the mother of four, grandmother and great-grandmother. She has spent more than two decades in prison, with several failed attempts to be granted clemency.
In December 2016, President Barack Obama granted clemency to 231 prisoners, but Johnson was not on the list.
“I think that was more of an up-and-down,” Charles Johnson said. “Every time you’d see another list come out, you’d look at it just to see if her name’s on it, and it’s not. To me, I think I was more worried about her, because it was such an up-and-down thing for her to get really happy and really depressed every time a list came out.”
Johnson’s story caught the attention of Kim Kardashian West, who went to the White House on May 30, Johnson’s 63rd birthday, to meet with President Donald Trump about prison reform and a pardon for the minister, writer and mentor. One week later, she was pardoned.
Kardashian West reportedly heard of the story when a video of Johnson was posted on Mic’s Twitter account. “Life offered me no opportunity for parole because there is not parole in the prison system,” Johnson said in the video.
Alice Marie Johnson has been in prison for 21 years for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. pic.twitter.com/VFe29D2ve8
— Mic (@mic) October 23, 2017
This is so unfair… https://t.co/W3lPINbQuy
— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) October 26, 2017
In a letter obtained by TMZ, Johnson thanked Kardashian West for her support.
“There are no words strong enough to express my deep and heartfelt gratitude,” Johnson wrote. “Ms. Kardashian, you are quite literally helping to save my life and restore me to my family. I was drowning and you have thrown me a life jacket, and given me hope that this life jacket I’m serving may one day be taken off.”
“It’s amazing that Kim Kardashian even looked at this and decided that this is something that she wanted to take hold of. It’s crazy,” said Shontoria Johnson. “This is all a part, I guess, of the war on drugs, epidemics that have hurt our communities for a while.”
For Charles and Shontoria Johnson, memories aren’t enough. The newlyweds, who’d known each other for a little more than 18 years, are waiting for the day when Johnson can come home to her family and pursue her dream of helping others in her shoes.
“I think it’s so scary to think that she might die in jail and never be able to really be with her grandkids,” Charles Johnson said. “They’d never get to see how super or great she is in person, just over Skype or over a phone call. When she left, Justin was maybe a year-and-a-half. She really loved having Justin around and keeping him. I may have changed his diaper twice when he was a little kid. She wouldn’t ever let me. She was like, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’ She’s very giving, so she’s always been a very giving person. Always was the life-of-the-party kind of thing, dancing and embarrassing me in front of everybody. She didn’t care. She just liked having fun.”
According to Shontoria Johnson, Johnson is anxious, nervous and hopeful.
“She feels like this is the furthest that we’ve ever got, and she’s just very excited at this point. We’ve gone through a lot of this together, this family, and it was very difficult going through the ups and downs and highs and lows of hoping for the best and being let down at some points, but we’re very hopeful at this point.”
Johnson’s daughter Tretessa Johnson started a petition for clemency on Change.org that has more than 260,000 signatures to date.
“My family’s life changed forever when my she was sentenced to life in federal prison,” Tretessa Johnson wrote. “She was one of thousands of first time, nonviolent offenders who were given long mandatory prison terms. She had lost her job and became a telephone mule passing messages between her coconspirators.”
In December 2016, Johnson explained how she got involved with a Memphis, Tennessee-based cocaine trafficking operation in a piece for CNN.com. She said she needed a way to make ends meet during a difficult time in her life. According to Mic, she couldn’t secure employment after losing her job at FedEx, where she had worked for 10 years, due to a gambling addiction; she got divorced, and had just recently lost her youngest son to a motorcycle accident.
“No mother should have to bury her child,” Johnson wrote. “This weight was unbelievable, and it was a burden I couldn’t sustain. I made some very poor decisions out of desperation … I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs. This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down. I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers. I participated in a drug conspiracy, and I was wrong.”
Charles Johnson wasn’t aware of any of his mother’s illegal activity.
“I had no idea at all, to be honest,” he said. “Even after the court stuff, I don’t even think I even learned exactly what she was convicted of for a few years, because I just didn’t want to know. It didn’t matter if she wasn’t around. I think most of the time when we even talk, we don’t even talk about the court case. We talk about other stuff, family or kids or whatever.
“When she was arrested, I just figured she’ll get an appeal and be out in a week. I just keep thinking that over and over until we lost the house. Then it was OK a year. OK next year. Then I thought, ‘Why isn’t she out yet?’ I was in shock and didn’t want to face it. Then when they moved her to California, it was real. She isn’t coming back. Anger and depression is probably the best way to say it. She was so hopeful that I had to be as well.”
The hardest part for Charles Johnson is not being able to see his mother interact with her grandchildren.
“Even my youngest son, Chris, I think he’s anxious to see her,” he said. “He’s done the Skyping, so he really wants to meet her. Just having her around, being a grandmother to everybody. I think that’s the biggest thing. Also just catching up and taking her out and actually being able to do something for her birthday for a change except just singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ ”
“We’re a blended family,” Shontoria Johnson said. “We need the opportunity to be able to connect with her. I have a 15-year-old son. He’s met her via Skype and talked to her about school and things of that nature. She’s definitely welcomed him, and he’s taken to her too. She’s a person that you fall in love with immediately.
“I watched Charles go through all those emotions, and I had to support Charles through those emotions and also with speaking with Mama Alice on Skype, I could see her emotions as well, and at some point, it seemed like she had pushed back from everything. It was an interesting time. It was disheartening,” she said.
“I think right now, I guess I can say I’m more ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ kind of thing,” Charles Johnson said. “It’s like I’m hopeful, but until she’s actually in the car driving here, I don’t know how I really feel. At this point, at least we know the president actually knows who she is and what’s going on with her, so this is the closest I can say she’s ever really came to it.”
While in prison, Johnson has been writing and performing plays on most of the holidays. She’s also a minister.
“She’s really trying to help and mentor a lot of people in there be better when they come out, if they get out, or just while they’re in there, just become better people as a whole,” Charles Johnson said.
“I think she uses that as an outlet to connect with people that she wouldn’t normally connect with, to help them be a better person, to mentor them, and to be, like I said, the great personal mother that she is,” Shontoria Johnson said.