Content warning: This story contains descriptions of child abuse and violence.
Chaundra Johnson says she learned how to be an adult in prison. Not only because she’s spent nearly half her life behind bars for the murder of a man she did not kill, but also because of the abuse and trauma she experienced as a girl growing up in Macon County, Alabama.
“Our childhood was nothing,” Johnson told the Southern Poverty Law Center in an interview about her early life with two brothers. “I don’t remember no fun times, because I hadn’t had none. We had to grow up fast, try to survive and help our mama.”
Johnson’s father left her mother when she was 4 and he wasn’t in the picture much. She suffered abuse at the hands of other men who were close to her family. An aunt’s boyfriend sexually abused her when she was 8. The abuse continued until she was 12, when he died in a car accident.
Her mother dated a physically abusive man who often hit her mom. He once fired a rifle at Johnson and her brothers. That led Johnson to a deep fear of guns, she said.
“[My mother] just went through pure hell,” Johnson said. “But she still tried.”
That was just a portion of the trauma she experienced as a child.
Now at 43, Johnson dreams of a different life for her own children, whom she has helped raise for the last 20 years while incarcerated at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in rural Wetumpka, Alabama.
She’s serving a life sentence for the murder of Charles Clarence Whatley, or Lance, as she knew him. Lance was a friend who often did drugs with her when she was in her early 20s.
She says she didn’t hurt Lance, but she was there when Craig Newton, an acquaintance who’d promised to sell drugs to the two of them, killed him. She was also charged with murder, and without good legal advice, she pleaded guilty.
“Lance was a wonderful man,” she said. “He was a man that anybody would’ve loved to have known.”
In July 2020, Johnson was up for parole. Her husband of over 20 years, Robert Johnson, her daughters, Chantae and Charnae Alexander, and her son, Robert Johnson Jr., all wrote letters in support of her release, along with several others. Her family was ready for her to be a wife and mother – and now even a grandmother – outside the prison walls.
But her parole was denied.
Only a few months later, in December 2020, her daughter Chantae passed away suddenly in a car accident. She was only 25 and left behind two young children of her own.
“Chantae was making me proud,” Johnson said. “She had one more semester in college and was going to get her degree in culinary arts. She was supposed to be the one to break the curse.”
‘The worst house we could’ve gone to’
Johnson was introduced to crack cocaine at 16 through a neighbor who had stopped by with a supposed job offer when her family moved into a new area. But the man’s intentions, she said, were not good.
“He ruined my life,” she said. “I was never in trouble, I was an A student in school, I just had my first baby. I didn’t know nothing about this stuff. So, once I got in tune with getting high, it’s like I couldn’t shake it off me.”
Johnson developed a substance use disorder in her teens. To support her habit, she started shoplifting and committing acts of petty theft.
“I tried to explain to [my family] that feeling… it’s something that you just can’t turn on and turn off if you are not strong enough,” she said. “That’s why I sympathize with people that are on drugs, because I know how hard it is to come off of it if you don’t have the right support.”
After 1997, she spent roughly two years in prison for two theft charges and a third-degree burglary charge related to her reliance on drugs. When she was released in 1999, she married her husband, Robert Johnson.
But she still could not escape her dependency. That’s how she ended up meeting Lance Whatley.
The night of Whatley’s death in May 2001, he and Johnson were looking to buy more drugs in Tuskegee, Alabama, where she was living at the time.
“He asked me if I knew anybody and I told him no, but I said I know some folks that might have something,” she said. “We ended up going to a few people’s houses that I knew had stuff. They didn’t have nothing, so the last one we ended up going to was the worst house we could’ve gone to.”
Whatley and Johnson stopped at the home of a friend she knew from high school. Craig Newton also lived there. Newton had some drugs he could sell, she said, but he asked if Whatley could give him a ride to Highway 29 to get more.
“I said tell him no, I said don’t do it,” Johnson said. “We don’t need to take him. I said, ‘Something ain’t sitting right with me with this boy, I’m telling you.’ Well, he said, ‘It’s going to be okay.’”
Whatley, Newton and Johnson stopped at Whatley’s home, where he wanted to smoke. However, during the course of the night, Newton pulled out a gun to rob Whatley. He told Johnson to tie up Whatley with a hair dryer cord, or he would shoot her, too. After a struggle, Newton shot Whatley and set his place on fire.
“I couldn’t believe it was actually happening,” Johnson said. “And if I knew like I knew now, I would have ran. I would’ve ran and got help. But I was too scared. I got a gun pointed at me. I’m doing what he tells me to do.”
Newton forced Johnson to drive Whatley’s car away from the residence. She said she believes that was his motive for keeping her alive, to have her fingerprints on the scene to implicate her in the crime. Eventually, she was dropped off at home, traumatized.
“I turned myself in two days later because my husband convinced me to do it,” Johnson said. “He told me to turn myself in because that would be the right thing to do, and because I ain’t got nothin’ to hide.”
According to a letter to the parole board on her behalf from David Warren, a former Macon County sheriff, Johnson supplied “vital information that led to the conviction of the actual killer,” Craig Newton. Warren wrote in favor of Johnson’s release.
In 2001, at the time of her sentencing, her prior convictions made her a habitual offender in the state of Alabama. That, along with a lack of adequate legal representation, meant that the cards were stacked against her.
“I didn’t have the money to get a good lawyer,” her husband said. “I talked with one lawyer that I couldn’t hire, and he told me if you love this woman, what you need to do is y’all need to plead guilty to keep [the case] from going to court and avoid the death sentence.”
Life in prison
Today, Newton is on Alabama’s death row for the murder of Whatley. Because Johnson pleaded guilty and testified against him, she avoided a similar fate. But she still spent the last two decades in prison.
Despite her hardships, Johnson has since overcome her dependence on drugs. She’s gone through a substance abuse program, received her GED diploma, and taken classes on grief counseling.
What’s more, she has earned certificates in parenting, anger management and creative writing from Auburn University. She took cosmetology classes at J.F. Ingram Technical College and had a couple of potential jobs lined up at salons if she were released.
Still, her husband said he wants to help her open a business in order to avoid the collateral consequences that formerly incarcerated people tend to face while trying to find work.
Johnson is not up for a parole hearing again until 2025.
Over the past 20 years, Johnson’s husband has visited her as often as he could. He also frequently brought her children to see her so they would know their mother.
“As her husband I never missed a visit,” he said. “By marrying her, I was able to take the children and stuff happened differently, the support was different than if I had not been married to her. I thank the Lord for that.”
When Johnson was denied parole last year, it hurt her husband and children.
“They felt that she had done her time and that the system wasn’t fair,” her husband said. “They could see the disparity in the criminal justice system from TV. Not only my children, but there are other children that are under the same circumstance, many children across Alabama. I pray for them all the time, not just mine.”
‘I grew up seeing my mom behind bars’
Chantae Alexander, Chaundra’s middle daughter who passed away late last year, wrote a letter of support for her mother before her hearing last July.
In it, she wrote, “Since I was a little girl I grew up seeing my mom behind bars. Never really getting that time with her how I wanted to. Everything I do is to make sure I break the curse of my mother’s decisions. … Every time I go to visit my mom her spirits are so wonderful because she knows it won’t be long before she comes home to her family. I know she wants to be able to watch her grandkids grow up because she couldn’t watch us grow up into the adults we are today.”
Chantae also wrote about how proud she was of her mom’s accomplishments while incarcerated.
“She makes me feel like it’s never too late to go after your dreams no matter what you went through in life,” she wrote.
“The last thing I remember her telling me was, ‘Mama, you’re stronger than I ever would have been. Mama, I’m proud of you. Mama, I’m not mad at you and I forgive you, Mama,’” Johnson said. “If my children can forgive me for leaving them when they were babies, anybody should be able to forgive me.”
Johnson said she wishes she could have done things differently the night of Whatley’s death, but she doesn’t regret telling the truth. Her story hasn’t changed in over 20 years. She says she still believes that one day the truth will set her free.
“I lost so much being in prison, so I know how it feels to lose things. I know how it feels to lose someone. I know how it feels to be lonely. I know how it feels to hurt. I hurt every day,” she said. “But I didn’t take his life and I don’t feel like they should take mine, but they have. I’ve lost my brother since I’ve been incarcerated. I’ve lost my mom and now I’ve lost one of my children. What’s left? What else do they want from me? I don’t have nothin’ left.”
Read more about the Freedom Denied series here.
Illustration by Ryan Simpson