This October 10, 2019 article is republished with permission from The Intercept, an award-winning nonprofit news organization dedicated to holding the powerful accountable through fearless, adversarial journalism. Sign up for The Intercept’s Newsletter.
Lashawn Jermaine Johnson spent his 30s in prison law libraries. As he put it in an interview, that was “the only place you were going to find freedom” in prison. Sitting at one of a dozen desktop computers with windows overlooking a quad, Johnson dug through past convictions of the assistant United States attorney who prosecuted him for cocaine trafficking in Billings, Montana.
What he found not only set him free but called into question the convictions of many others behind bars.
James Seykora had been prosecuting federal drug cases for decades in Billings, the largest city in the state with a population just shy of 110,000. Local defense attorneys described him as a hard worker who dutifully sought the harshest penalties for drug crimes. One called him a “trained pitbull” and said “the people to blame were his bosses.” In 2004, he won an award for his sheer number of drug convictions.
But it turned ...