9 episodes

One July night in 1995, Deputy Sheriff William G. Hardy was shot behind the Crown Sterling Suites hotel in Birmingham, Alabama. At the same time as the murder, at least ten people saw Toforest Johnson four miles away, at a popular nightclub called Tee's Place. But detectives zeroed in on him as a main suspect in Deputy Hardy’s murder anyway, ultimately resulting in Toforest being tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. For over a quarter century, Toforest has been confined to a 5’ by 8’ cell on Alabama’s death row.

In 2019, investigative journalist Beth Shelburne began covering the case, going down a disturbing rabbit hole revealing many unsettling facts that cast grave doubts about Toforest’s guilt. The facts she found tear at the very foundation of the American criminal justice system: No eyewitnesses or physical evidence tied Toforest to the murder; the state tried to convict a different man for the same crime; and perhaps most disturbing of all, Toforest’s conviction relied on an ‘earwitness’ – a woman who claimed to have eavesdropped on an incriminating phone call, a woman whom prosecutors paid for her testimony, in secret. That payment was not disclosed to the jury, Toforest, or his lawyers until after he had been on death row for 17 years.

From the team behind the award-winning hit podcast Bone Valley, Lava for Good’s Earwitness is an 8-episode docuseries that asks the question, “How did an innocent man end up on death row — and why is the state still trying to execute him over the objection of the prosecutor who put him there?” Shelburne’s unprecedented access to key players—the lead detective, lead prosecutor, witnesses, jurors, and the earwitness herself— illuminate a story filled with disturbing twists, frustrating ambiguities, and shocking admissions. The story of Toforest Johnson and the state's enthusiasm for the death penalty in the face of such troubling evidentiary flaws brings to light the failings of a criminal justice system run amok.

Earwitness is available every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts. To hear episodes 1 week early and ad free, subscribe to Lava for Good+ on Apple Podcasts.

Earwitness Lava for Good+

    • True Crime
    • 4.7 • 338 Ratings

Listen on Apple Podcasts
Requires subscription and macOS 11.4 or higher

One July night in 1995, Deputy Sheriff William G. Hardy was shot behind the Crown Sterling Suites hotel in Birmingham, Alabama. At the same time as the murder, at least ten people saw Toforest Johnson four miles away, at a popular nightclub called Tee's Place. But detectives zeroed in on him as a main suspect in Deputy Hardy’s murder anyway, ultimately resulting in Toforest being tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. For over a quarter century, Toforest has been confined to a 5’ by 8’ cell on Alabama’s death row.

In 2019, investigative journalist Beth Shelburne began covering the case, going down a disturbing rabbit hole revealing many unsettling facts that cast grave doubts about Toforest’s guilt. The facts she found tear at the very foundation of the American criminal justice system: No eyewitnesses or physical evidence tied Toforest to the murder; the state tried to convict a different man for the same crime; and perhaps most disturbing of all, Toforest’s conviction relied on an ‘earwitness’ – a woman who claimed to have eavesdropped on an incriminating phone call, a woman whom prosecutors paid for her testimony, in secret. That payment was not disclosed to the jury, Toforest, or his lawyers until after he had been on death row for 17 years.

From the team behind the award-winning hit podcast Bone Valley, Lava for Good’s Earwitness is an 8-episode docuseries that asks the question, “How did an innocent man end up on death row — and why is the state still trying to execute him over the objection of the prosecutor who put him there?” Shelburne’s unprecedented access to key players—the lead detective, lead prosecutor, witnesses, jurors, and the earwitness herself— illuminate a story filled with disturbing twists, frustrating ambiguities, and shocking admissions. The story of Toforest Johnson and the state's enthusiasm for the death penalty in the face of such troubling evidentiary flaws brings to light the failings of a criminal justice system run amok.

Earwitness is available every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts. To hear episodes 1 week early and ad free, subscribe to Lava for Good+ on Apple Podcasts.

Listen on Apple Podcasts
Requires subscription and macOS 11.4 or higher

    Episode 1 | Behind the Crown

    Episode 1 | Behind the Crown

    Episode 1 of 8

    Journalist Beth Shelburne meets with former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, who explains why he is deeply disturbed by the wrongful conviction of Toforest Johnson for the murder of Deputy Bill Hardy. Through her reporting on the case, Beth, like Baxley, is convinced that Toforest has no connection to the murder. She sets out to conduct an in-depth investigation into why detectives targeted him in the first place, how he was convicted, and why the State of Alabama is still seeking his execution today. 

    To learn more, including how you can help, visit:

    http://www.ToforestJohnson.com

    Earwitness is available every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts. To hear episodes 1 week early and ad free, subscribe to Lava for Good+ on Apple Podcasts.

    Earwitness is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co. No1.
    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    • 42 min
    Episode 2 | Don't Know Diddly

    Episode 2 | Don't Know Diddly

    Episode 2 of 8

    Beth trains her focus on the days immediately following the murder, beginning with recordings of police interrogations of key witnesses. Yolanda Chambers, a 15-year-old girl, places Toforest at the scene of the murder. But Beth finds evidence that Chambers was manipulated by law enforcement officers into fabricating her testimony. Beth brings her findings to lead detective Tony Richardson, who defends his tactics while admitting regrets that cast further doubt on his decision to build a case against Toforest based solely on Chambers’ evershifting word. 

    To learn more, including how you can help, visit:

    http://www.ToforestJohnson.com

    Earwitness is available every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts. To hear episodes 1 week early and ad free, subscribe to Lava for Good+ on Apple Podcasts.

    Archival audio courtesy of WBRC

    Earwitness is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co. No1.
    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    • 46 min
    Episode 3 | Police Girl

    Episode 3 | Police Girl

    Episode 3 of 8

    After learning that Yolanda Chambers changed her story hundreds of times and admitted to perjury, Beth sets out to understand Chambers’ motivations. Is she a villain or a victim? Beth tracks down her mother, who has never spoken publicly about the case. She learns important details about Chambers’ tragic life, including her role as a paid informant for the FBI, work that may have ultimately led to her murder at age 29.

    To learn more, including how you can help, visit:http://www.ToforestJohnson.com

    Earwitness is available every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts. To hear episodes 1 week early and ad free, subscribe to Lava for Good+ on Apple Podcasts.

    Archival audio courtesy of WBRC

    Earwitness is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co. No1.
    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    • 42 min
    Episode 4 | Witness or Defendant

    Episode 4 | Witness or Defendant

    Episode 4 of 8

    Beth examines the Hardy murder file in order to fully understand the investigation. She discovers a pattern of tunnel vision, willful disbelief of alibi witnesses, and a reliance on coercive interview tactics that suggest if witnesses don’t say what the police want them to say, they will end up as defendants and charged with crimes themselves. Beth considers other potential investigative leads that were ignored and lost to time while detectives constructed a narrative that suited their fixation on securing a prosecution for this high-profile crime. 

    To learn more, including how you can help, visit:

    http://www.ToforestJohnson.com

    Earwitness is available every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts. To hear episodes 1 week early and ad free, subscribe to Lava for Good+ on Apple Podcasts.

    Archival audio courtesy of WBRC

    Earwitness is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co. No1.
    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    • 46 min
    Episode 5 | Anybody Will Do

    Episode 5 | Anybody Will Do

    Episode 5 of 8

    Beth combs through the trial transcripts to understand how Toforest was convicted of Deputy Hardy’s murder with no physical evidence. During the trial, the State introduces a new witness - the earwitness. Violet Ellison claims she overheard Toforest talk about the murder on a jailhouse phone call – a theory the State initially rejected but now throws all its weight behind once Yolanda Chambers’s story falls apart. Beth walks listeners through one of the most shocking aspects of this case: in five different court proceedings, prosecutors presented five different, mutually exclusive theories about how Deputy Hardy was killed. Her investigation then leads her to the prosecutor who asked a jury 25 years ago to sentence Toforest to death. 

    To learn more, including how you can help, visit:

    http://www.ToforestJohnson.com

    Earwitness is available every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts. To hear episodes 1 week early and ad free, subscribe to Lava for Good+ on Apple Podcasts.

    Earwitness is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co. No1.
    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    • 56 min
    Episode 6 | Misfiled

    Episode 6 | Misfiled

    Episode 6 of 8

    Beth unravels disturbing revelations about the State’s handling of Violet Ellison, the earwitness whose testimony forms the backbone of the case against Toforest. She tracks the tenacious investigative work of Toforest’s lawyers to prove Ellison was paid $5000 for her testimony - in secret. After years of denying that a reward was ever paid, prosecutors are finally forced to disclose the truth – almost 20 years after Toforest was convicted and sentenced to death. 

    To learn more, including how you can help, visit:

    http://www.ToforestJohnson.com

    Earwitness is available every Tuesday wherever you get your podcasts. To hear episodes 1 week early and ad free, subscribe to Lava for Good+ on Apple Podcasts.

    Earwitness is a production of Lava for Good™ Podcasts in association with Signal Co. No1.
    See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

    • 45 min

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5
338 Ratings

338 Ratings

Daryl5112 ,

Great podcast ! Must listen !

Very informative and well done and will pull at your heart strings to help with this case and everyone involved

stephaniekida ,

Spread the word

This is a very well done, well produced podcast about an astonishing miscarriage of justice. The host does an excellent job of shining a light on everything that went wrong here. Yet again, prosecutorial questionable ethics and outright misconduct by the DA office sent another man of color to prison for a crime he had no involvement in. Spread the word about this podcast and help get Toforest Johnson freed and back to his family and friends.

AaronPW82 ,

Heartbroken

This man is clearly innocent and deserves to be set free! It made me so sick to my stomach to listen to this story! It has haunted me ever since!

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