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Innocent behind bars | She went to prison at 16, now she's a pardoned, wrongfully convicted woman and Kentucky doesn't compensate

As a result of our investigation, one lawmaker says he will file new legislation to help people in Kentucky who have been wrongfully convicted.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville resident Johnetta Carr said she was framed for murdering her boyfriend. The result was nearly four years behind bars, and another nine years on parole, monitored for good behavior.  

And through it all, she kept saying police got the wrong person

“It's almost like a living death sentence,” said Carr. 

She almost tried to end her life.

“You just get hopeless," she said. 

She said she was hopeless until attorneys stepped in from the Kentucky Innocence Project, a statewide resource to combat wrongful convictions. They proved there was no evidence connecting her to the crime. 

“I was so happy," said Carr. 

She became one of 23 people in Kentucky exonerated due to wrongful convictions, largely over the last two decades. 

Their total time behind bars: 214 years, according to the National Registry of Exonerations

“I lost time with my family, I lost the best years of my teenage life. I lost trust," said Carr. 

And she believes there are countless others facing that same unfair loss. Their convictions are often the result of police misconduct, false accusations and mistaken identity, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Strained and overworked public defenders say the court system is unfair to mainly lower-income people, who can't afford bail. They are held in jail, sometimes for years, while their case is pending. 

“It's a painful experience," said Carr. 

Experts estimate two to six percent of people who have been convicted are wrongly convicted. That’s up to around 1,600 people in Kentucky, and around 87,000 people nationwide who may be innocent behind bars, according to the Kentucky Innocence Project and the Prison Policy Initiative.

It’s been two years since Carr said she regained freedom. She now has a home, a family, and she advocates for change. Because Kentucky is one of only 13 states without a statute to compensate people who have been wrongly convicted.

“There has to be change," said Carr. 

Carr said she didn’t receive a single dollar from the state to help her get back on her feet. 

“Everything is taken from you," she said. 

Under state law, she received less help to reintegrate into society than what someone actually guilty of a crime would be able to access. Luckily, she leaned on family for support. But others don’t have that safety net.

“They haven't learned any skills or anything, how are they supposed to survive?" said Carr. 

She also wants legislation to prevent what she said happened to her in the interrogation room.

“Because juveniles are very vulnerable. And it's very easy for them to be persuaded into say that they committed crimes that they actually are innocent of," she said. 

 “Why do you think wrongful convictions keep happening?” asked Vasan.

“Not enough accountability happening," she said, referring to everyone from police to prosecutors. 

“Well, I think she's right," said Kentucky Representative Jason Nemes. “It's heartbreaking.”

In light of our investigation, he tells us he’ll be filing new legislation to compensate those who’ve been wrongfully convicted.

“This is an issue that I think will unify both parties and all sides of the issue," he said.

It’s an issue that will forever haunt Carr. 

She still has nightmares of her prison cell.

“All those feelings come back," she said. 

But she said she’s not a victim. She’s a fighter. 

“And Kentucky cannot be left behind in the fight," Carr said. 

And justice, she said, is worth a long fight, so her kids understand the danger of our criminal justice system, and one day fight for justice themselves. 

Carr was pardoned in 2019 by former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin. But she said her conviction will impact her reputation for the rest of her life. She tells us the number one way we can prevent wrongful convictions is by educating future generations to be aware of their biases. She said that type of training may have prevented her from losing years of her life within a system that failed her.  

In 2020, Carr and her attorney announced they had file a lawsuit against the city and LMPD. 

A full copy of the lawsuit Johnetta Carr v. City of Louisville is available here.

Contact reporter Paula Vasan at pvasan@whas11.com. Follow her on Twitter (@PaulaVasan) and Facebook.

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