WINCHESTER — Now that he has his own car, Messiah Johnson is feeling more independent.
The Norfolk man received a 2015 Toyota Corolla on Saturday afternoon from Malloy Toyota after the Winchester dealership was contacted by The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, which began working to free Johnson from prison in 2011.
Johnson, pardoned by former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, was released earlier this year while serving a 132-year sentence for a 1998 armed robbery of a Norfolk beauty salon that he insisted he did not commit.
“I feel fortunate,” Johnson said on Saturday about his new vehicle. “It’s really going to help me as I work toward my independence again.”
Shortly before leaving office in January, McAuliffe granted Johnson a conditional pardon after The Innocence Project obtained a signed confession from a man who professed to being involved in the robbery. After more than 20 years of incarceration, Johnson was released from the Sussex II State Prison in Waverly in April. Just two days before his release, he had surgery on his back.
Deirdre Enright, co-director of The Innocence Project, contacted Geoff Malloy, owner of Malloy Auto Group, about helping Johnson. Enright’s brother went to high school with Malloy. And Enright has known Malloy’s wife since they were in school together.
The Innocence Project continues to seek full exoneration for Johnson, according to Enright.
In a recent letter to Malloy, she wrote that Johnson had been convicted based on being misidentified by the salon owner as well as the actions of “bad defense lawyers, bad eyewitnesses, bad police, just to name a few.”
Soon after being released from prison, Johnson found a job in a warehouse, but the work is hard on his back.
“If Messiah had his own car,” Enright wrote to Malloy, “... he could find a job that didn’t continue to damage his recently-repaired spine, and he could get the additional medical attention that he needs.”
And Johnson would no longer have to depend on a family member to take him to and from work every day, and he would be able to go to school at night, as he always has wanted to do, she pointed out.
Having been incarcerated for so long, Johnson is trying to re-enter the world and become a productive member of society again, said Evelyn Akers, general manager of Malloy Toyota.
“He can’t do that without a vehicle,” Akers said.
Enright’s letter asked Malloy for whatever help he could provide. Malloy thought that Johnson should have a car and decided to give him one, Akers said.
Malloy was unable to attend Saturday’s ceremony when Akers presented Johnson the keys to his green-colored Corolla, which has 40,000 miles on it but “looks totally brand new,” Enright said.
The dealership contributed a three-year, 36,000-mile warranty. Akers said Johnson can have the car serviced at any Toyota dealership.
Johnson said he recently made contacts with some employers, and he believes he will obtain a better job soon. He said he eventually would like to work in real estate.