Nov 25, 2019
The poor healthcare that Bobbie Jean Johnson received during her more than 40 years in prison contributed to her death, family members say.
In February 2018, 40 years after Bobbie Jean Johnson was sent to prison, she was set free. Bobbie Jean was 19 when she was arrested for the murder of New Orleans antique dealer Arthur Samson, and during her decades in prison, she maintained her innocence. Months after Bobbie Jean’s release, the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University asked her to participate in an upcoming exhibit focused on incarcerated women. In May 2018, she spoke to the museum’s curators about her life and case.
“It’s beautiful out here, it’s not dull and stuff,” she said. “There’s so much out here for us to do, and for us to get into, and for us to enjoy.”
But Bobbie Jean had just a short time to enjoy the things the outside world had to offer. On Oct. 25, less than two years after her release, she died in a Georgia hospital of organ failure after a routine surgical procedure. Bobbie Jean was just a week shy of her 61st birthday. She had been diagnosed with high blood pressure, was undergoing dialysis for kidney failure due to diabetes, and had tested positive for Hepatitis C, according to a family member, who also said all of Bobbie Jean’s major organs were impaired.
“She was in very poor health when she got out, and I’m sure that it was to do with the poor care she received in prison,” said one of her lawyers, Caroline Tillman. “She was very sick and nearly died at least once while we were representing her—we were very concerned that she would die before she got out.”
Bobbie Jean Johnson was 19 when she got caught up in the case that cost her her freedom, but she didn’t have much of a childhood in the first place. According to her own account, she was given up by her parents and then molested while in foster care. She ran away and ended up in a series of relationships with older, violent men, who had pushed her into sex work and drug use.
On July 16, 1977, the body of Arthur Samson was found in his antique shop. He was shot in the chest and stabbed around 100 times. Around $2,000 was stolen from the safe in his store. Ten days later, Bobbie Jean was in the passenger seat of a Pontiac Grand Prix with two other men when they were pulled over by New Orleans police officers. One officer determined that the car was stolen and, during a search of the vehicle, found a gun in Bobbie Jean’s purse. Later testing revealed the gun to be the same used in Samson’s death.
When Bobbie Jean was questioned, she said one of the men in the vehicle had put the gun into her handbag; the man confirmed this was true. She said the man lent the weapon to another woman, Kimberly Ligon, who had bragged about killing a white man for money.
A week later, under questioning by New Orleans Police Department detectives, Bobbie Jean confessed to the murder of Arthur Samson. She told police she and Ligon had killed him after he solicited them for sex. In her 2018 interview with the Newcomb Art Museum, Bobbie Jean said the officers used brutal force to extract the confession. “They put a plastic bag over my head,” she said. “It was like I was smothered, and I pulled the plastic off my head, and when I did that he said, ‘I could kill you right now, ain’t nothing but police officers up in here. … I could kill you right now, and nobody would never know what happened to you, not even your family.’”
But in her confession, Bobbie Jean got several key details of the crime wrong, including the number of times Samson was shot. Despite her insistence that her confession was coerced, Bobbie Jean’s appointed attorney, Thomas Baumler, did not object to it being played in full for the jury. He also didn’t object to a juror remaining on the jury who remembered during the trial that she knew Samson. According to a court filing in Bobbie Jean’s case, Baumler, who is now deceased, objected just once, made no opening or closing statements, and called no witnesses in her defense.
After she was convicted in the Samson case, Bobbie Jean was sent to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW) in St. Gabriel, just south of Baton Rouge. It was 1978, she was 20 years old, and she was mad at the world. “I didn’t listen to nobody, because I know I had been messed over,” she said in 2018. “I was so angry and I was so hurt, because I was in prison for something I know I didn’t do.”
She often fought with other incarcerated women, which resulted in a mandatory 90 days in solitary confinement. Sometimes, she said, her time in solitary was doubled because she talked back to the guards. “As a woman, it’s like they strip you, they try to strip you of your dignity, because they tell you what to do, when to do it and how to do it,” she said. “That is very degrading, it’s very degrading. Even though I was young, I knew.”
But one night during a long stint in solitary, Bobbie Jean prayed. “I was in one of them cells and I fell on my knees and I said, ‘Look, God, I can’t do this no more. I don’t want to live my life like this no more.’ I said, ‘You just take it and you do what you want to with it.’”
Bobbie Jean credited that desperate prayer for setting her life up for her eventual release. She would go on to serve more than 40 years in prison, but that was her last time in solitary confinement. Instead of fighting, she focused on self-improvement by taking paralegal classes, reading self-help books, and trying to be a role model for younger women at LCIW.
Amy Yang met Bobbie Jean when she was transferred to LCIW in 2011. Yang said incarcerated women would seek out Bobbie Jean for her crocheting skills, which she put to use making handmade gifts for their family members. Yang entered the prison system when she was just 16 and she would go to Miss Bobbie, as she called her, for advice. “Anybody that was younger than her, she always took them in. She was a very nurturing person,” she said. “She does fuss—she literally fusses you like she’s your mother—‘Don’t do that! You’re going to get in trouble!’”
“But everyone always acknowledged her,” she added. “She drew in people. She was like a magnet for people.”
During the decades Bobbie Jean spent in prison, her health problems mounted. She was diagnosed with diabetes but struggled to maintain a healthy diet. Bobbie Jean’s family said she was also treated for Crohn’s disease. The summer before she was released from prison, her heart stopped briefly before she was resuscitated.
“For years I said test me for Hep C, test me for Hep C, and they never would. And when I got out of there, my doctor tested me and I have Hep C,” she said. “They don’t even test you for nothing, and if they do they don’t even tell you about it. You’d be in the blind about it.”
Bobbie Jean’s frustrated attempts to receive adequate healthcare in prison is not unique. In a 2017 study, Tulane University School of Medicine researchers found that formerly incarcerated men who served long sentences in Louisiana had trouble accessing doctors, were prevented from seeing expensive specialists, and did not trust the doctors who treated them. In 2012, the Times-Picayune found that nearly two-thirds of the doctors who worked in Louisiana prisons had been disciplined by the state’s medical board for serious offenses. And a 2015 class action lawsuit filed on behalf of incarcerated men at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, argued that the substandard medical care they received violated their rights; the lawsuit is still pending.
The lack of access to quality care has long-term effects on the health of formerly incarcerated people, said William Vail, who led the Tulane study. “You end up seeing a lot of things a lot later than you should. They end up presenting very late—with very poorly controlled diabetes, hypertension, late stage cirrhosis, end-stage cancers. Especially for the people who had been in a long time.”
Such was the case for Glenn Ford, who was incarcerated on death row in Louisiana for 29 years before being exonerated, and was diagnosed with lung cancer just after he was released from prison. Ford spent just over a year as a free man before he died in 2015. John Thompson spent 14 years on Louisiana death row before his exoneration in 2003; he died in 2017 at just 55 years old.
Bobbie Jean may have found a much earlier release—and perhaps better health—if her earlier attempts to appeal her case had been successful. Few records can be found in her first appeal, but her conviction was upheld in 1980. In 1994, she again appealed, on the grounds that she was denied her constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel. The Louisiana Court of Appeal, Fourth Circuit again upheld her conviction.
After that ruling, Bobbie Jean applied for post-conviction relief three times in the late ’90s and early 2000s. In 2016, Bobbie Jean’s sister got in touch with the Innocence Project New Orleans, which began investigating her case. In October of that year, her attorneys filed another post-conviction application as a result of that probe, in which investigators found that the state withheld exculpatory evidence, presented false evidence to the jury, and appointed her a lawyer “who failed to provide even the bare minimum level of acceptable representation.”
The application also noted that the four New Orleans police officers who questioned Bobbie Jean leading up to her confession were all investigated for use-of-force abuses, including beating people into confessing to crimes and specific instances of “bagging” that were similar to what Bobbie Jean said she experienced. In 1981, two of the officers were indicted in a federal civil rights case for police brutality. The indictment alleged that “the officers handcuffed or tied persons in their custody to a chair, struck them over the head with a large book, struck them in their chests with their fists and bagged them, for example, placed a bag over their heads and sealed it at the bottom to cut off the person’s air supply.” One of the officers, Dale Bonura, was convicted.
Bobbie Jean’s attorneys ended up negotiating with the New Orleans district attorney’s office for her release, Tillman, one of her lawyers, said. In exchange for her freedom, Bobbie Jean pleaded guilty to manslaughter and armed robbery charges, making her eligible for immediate release based on time served.
“We are satisfied with the result,” New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro told the Times-Picayune in early February 2018, “in that we finally got a woman who killed as a teenager to acknowledge and accept responsibility for her crime 41 years later.”
On Feb. 8, 2018, Bobbie Jean walked free. Because of her admission of guilt, she was unable to apply for compensation from the state upon her release.
“She had to admit guilt on the record for the plea to get out of prison. Doing so was in her best interests to get out of prison before she died,” Tillman said. “Outside of that, she always maintained her innocence.”
After Bobbie Jean was released from prison, she moved in with her sister in the Atlanta area. She spent much of her time in the hospital, and getting her regular dialysis treatments. Bobbie Jean’s family said that her disability benefits took nine months to come through and the process added to her stress.
But Bobbie Jean was ecstatic to be free and witnessed the world with childlike wonder—from the escalators in the mall to the makeup in the department stores to the jellyfish at the Georgia Aquarium. And she told her story, as often as she possibly could.
This summer on a tour of the Newcomb exhibit, “Per(sister): Incarcerated Women of Louisiana,” she talked to the artist Rontherin Ratliff who made a sculpture to represent her story. She told him that she didn’t hold onto the bad things that happened to her, and instead focused on the positive. “You just got to forgive,” she told him, “and go ahead on with your life.”