By Beth Shelburne / Substack
This is Toforest Johnson’s 24th Father’s Day on Alabama’s death row. His five children were little in 1998 when he was convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. Today, they are all grown, and have kids and families of their own. He is Daddy to them, Pop-Pop or G-Pops to his grandkids. He talks to them all regularly on the prison phone and they make the trip to Holman Prison to visit when they can.
Toforest is the beating heart at the center of this family, keeping the body together despite his banishment. The force of his devotion and presence has remained steadfast, despite his physical absence from their lives.
They love him fiercely, boldly. The love I have witnessed in this family is palpable, like an electric current. It is charged and charging and relentless, despite the cruel distance and years apart. It is also tender and protective, framed by the horrible wrong Toforest has endured, yet somehow not bitter or angry or resentful. His children have shared consistent stories with me about the father they know and cherish.
He never complains. He keeps his head high. We never see him down. He wants us to know he’s still fighting. He gives the best advice. He is so funny. He is the strongest person I know.
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Their love is resolute, committed, an ironclad bond between blood that nothing can destroy. I have felt the incredible power of this love when I am in the room with Toforest’s family and it is inspiring and incredible and contagious. It is this big big love that most stands out to me in trying to report on and tell the story of what happened to Toforest Johnson. More than the injustice, the unforgivable dystopian horror he’s endured, the robbery of years between father and children. This love transcends despair, slashes it into tattered bits. It remains intact, solid. A flag flying high above the smoke and ruins the state left behind.
For the last two years I’ve been working on a podcast series about Toforest’s wrongful conviction and death sentence, trying to figure out why he’s still on death row despite calls for a new trial supported by the original prosecutor who sent him there. I’ve also been trying to understand how this conviction happened in the first place when the state’s case against Toforest rested on the word of a single witness, a woman who claimed she overheard him talk about the crime on a jailhouse phone call, and was later paid $5000 for her testimony without Toforest or his lawyers knowing she sought a reward.
But I’m not writing about the appalling criminal investigation or the lack of evidence or the indifferent nonchalance of the appeals courts in Toforest’s case. Not today. On this Father’s Day, I simply want to honor the love between this father and his children, this grandfather and his grandchildren. As I’ve worked on this project, with episodes due to be released in September, I’ve been awestruck by the love in this family. Somehow, that’s a harder story angle to capture in a podcast, but it’s the strongest theme I’ve felt in getting to know this family and doing the reporting on Toforest Johnson’s case.
True crime and wrongful convictions are an entire genre of books, movies and podcasts. Toforest Johnson’s story could fit into both of these genres, but to me, his is also a love story. Maybe first and foremost a love story. Not a romance, but a story about a family’s love that flies close to the sun, pure and true.
It makes me think of the love written about in 1 Corinthians 13. Their love is patient and kind, it does not envy or boast, it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Part of that truth is the love that has kept Toforest Johnson tethered to the free world and his family throughout his wrongful incarceration. Prison systems create countless obstacles and barriers that make staying close difficult for families. The expenses, the distance, the surveillance, the dehumanizing pat downs at prison visits. Many families just can’t maintain a tight bond with their incarcerated loved one. That has not happened in this family and from what I can see, it’s a testament to Toforest and the love he has shared so openly, freely and tenderly as he lives his life separated from everyone he loves, locked away in a prison cell.
Toforest has parented his children with the only things the state hasn’t taken away, the love in his heart, the gift of his time, his care, his prayers. He has given his children laughter, conversation, a relationship to depend on in a world that sometimes feels hopeless. He has given them hope that the truth will prevail. And that is a mighty love of a father worth celebrating today and everyday.
Editor’s note: This story was published with permission from the author. You can read more from Beth Shelburne’s Moth to a Flame here.
Beth Shelburne is an investigative reporter, journalist and writer based in Birmingham, Alabama. She has published reported essays about mass incarceration in Facing South, The Daily Beast, The Bitter Southerner and the Los Angeles Times. She currently works as an investigative reporter with Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice and is hard at work on an upcoming 8-part investigative podcast about the wrongful conviction of Toforest Johnson, who is currently on Alabama’s death row.