If Lamar Johnson, a St. Louis man who spent almost 25 years behind bars for a crime he says he didn’t commit, is found innocent at a potential new trial, he would be the 69th person (and counting) to be exonerated of wrongful convictions in the U.S. this year.
But despite overwhelming evidence prosecutors engaged in misconduct to convict him in 1995, a judge last week denied him a new trial on the basis that he missed the deadline to file a motion for a new trial by 24 years.
However, the top prosecutor in St. Louis County, the same office that convicted him 24 years ago, has vowed to appeal the decision. The deadline to appeal is Tuesday.
The Midwest Innocence Project teamed up with Kimberly Gardner, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney and organizer of her local conviction integrity unit. The unit reviews post-conviction claims of innocence in hopes of exonerating blameless prisoners and together, they found substantial evidence proving Johnson has been telling the truth all along.
Their 67-page motion stated “evidence of innocence, perjury, and false testimony and misconduct so prejudicial that the outcome of the [original] trial is unreliable...” had been found.
The attorney who prosecuted Johnson’s case in 1995 called the report “nonsense,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Johnson is serving a life sentence for the murder of Marcus Boyd who died after being shot multiple times over drugs in 1994. The two gunmen who killed Boyd were wearing ski masks and the only eyewitness, “Greg” who was with Boyd to buy drugs at the time, couldn’t make out their faces.
But according to the report, police had already listed Johnson as a suspect before interviewing “Greg.”
What makes this scenario even more questionable is Johnson was with friends at a party “at least 10 minutes away by car” at the time of Boyd’s shooting. For him to be the shooter, Johnson would have needed to get to Boyd, kill him and drive back to the party within “no more than five minutes.”
The detective investigating Boyd’s death, Joseph Nickerson, fabricated multiple testimonies to buff his claims that Johnson was the killer. Nickerson said people spoke of a feud between Johnson and Boyd that could have been the catalyst for the kill, but each person denied those claims in their pretrial deposition.
Nickerson bribed “Greg” with more than $4,000 if he testified Johnson was the killer in court and based on that false testimony, Johnson was convicted.
The 70-page report by the Innocence Project and the St. Louis attorney found that “the actual perpetrators...credibly confessed to the shooting of Boyd in signed sworn affidavits, personal writings...” In a letter to Johnson while he was in prison in 1995, Phillip Campbell acknowledged his own role in the murder while exonerating the wrongly accused men.
The signed confession was seized by the state but no effort was made to correct the wrongful conviction despite the new evidence until it was discovered years later and was used as evidence to plea for a new trial.
However, Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan denied Johnson’s petition for a new trial last week, not because she didn’t think he was guilty, but because his motion was filed 24 years too late. Hogan said Johnson should have tried to get a new trial within 15 days of his conviction even though newfound exonerating evidence was only found in the past few years.
Hogan recruited Eric Schmitt, the state attorney general, to assist with the case, but he insists his concern is protecting “the rule of law,” not Johnson’s innocence.
“The applicable laws and Supreme Court Rules provide for an orderly, established legal process for Mr. Johnson to pursue his claim of newly discovered evidence...In this case, Mr. Johnson’s lawyers and the Circuit Attorney’s Office attempted to avoid those established procedures. Additionally, this is an issue that deals exclusively with jurisdiction, and not questions of innocence or guilt. The Court appointed the Attorney General’s Office to protect the rule of law and the integrity of our justice system and correctly decided that Mr. Johnson and the Circuit Attorney needed to pursue the correct procedure.”
In an interview with KCTV5, Johnson asked, “If everybody agrees that I am innocent then I don’t understand why it’s so hard to just do the right thing? Sign the papers so that I can go on with my life. Try to pick up the pieces and move on.”
Schmitt’s office said the St. Louis Circuit Court’s jurisdiction over the case expired when Johnson was sentenced in 1995. So Judge Hogan may have denied reexamining the case, but the option to appeal the decision in a higher court is still possible.
"There is no statute of limitations on innocence and there is no expiration date on justice," Lamar Johnson's attorney, Lindsay Runnels said. "A prosecutor's duty to correct errors of this magnitude is never terminated, and rightfully so. The integrity of the justice system depends on those in power telling the truth and correcting errors when they become known."
A friend of Johnson’s, Ginny Schrappen, said she feels “race is a big thing with this, with his life, with the sentence alone because he is a man of color and was poor, so he had public defenders.”
Johnson waived his Miranda rights during his interrogation for Boyd’s murder which made falsifying claims even easier for the cops.
Tricia Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said those circumstances are far from unusual. “It’s tragically common, especially here in Missouri, where our public defenders are vastly underfunded and under-resourced,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Gardner said the office would appeal Hogan’s ruling. Runnels, who also works at the Morgan Pilate law firm in Kansas City and the Midwest Innocence Project, said in an email that they “respectfully disagree” with the ruling. “For all the discussion by the Court, not a single word addresses the clear, convincing, and overwhelming evidence that Mr. Johnson is innocent,” she added.
The deadline for the appeal is Tuesday, August 3rd.