By David M. Greenwald
St. Louis, MO – Last week Missouri carried through an execution of a man that many believed had strong claims of innocence. This week, a judge has set free another man, Lamar Johnson, in prison for 30 years for a crime he did not commit.
“This combined testimony amounts to clear and convincing evidence that Lamar Johnson is innocent and did not commit the murder of Marcus Boyd either individually or acting with another,” Circuit Court Judge David Mason wrote. “Consequently, this Court finds that there is clear and convincing evidence of Lamar Johnson’s actual innocence and that there was constitutional error at the original trial that undermines confidence in the judgment.”
It marked the culmination of an effort that began in 2019 when St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner filed a motion to vacate Johnson’s sentence. Her post-conviction unit had investigated the case and uncovered massive amounts of prosecutorial misconduct and shoddy police work, as well as the confessions of the two men who say they killed Boyd.
However, those efforts were thwarted by the AG Eric Schmitt who opposed any effort to free Johnson, arguing that Missouri lacked a mechanism to do so.
Gardner and others did not give up, and worked with the legislature to pass a law that allowed the process to go forward.
“Today the courts righted a wrong – vacating the sentence of Mr. Lamar Johnson following his wrongful conviction in 1995. Most importantly, we celebrate with Mr. Johnson and his family as he walks out of the courtroom as a free man,” Gardner said in a statement on Tuesday.
This is the moment Judge Mason announced he would set aside Lamar Johnson's murder conviction. pic.twitter.com/ZEk1MGLVG9
— KMOV (@KMOV) February 14, 2023
As much as this was a case about freeing a man wrongly imprisoned for decades, it was also about the ability to address this injustice.
“This case was about the ability of an elected prosecutor to address a manifest injustice,” Gardner explained. “This case says that in the state of Missouri, a person’s right to justice and liberty is valued more than the finality of an unjust conviction. My office fought long and hard, we took this case all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. We are pleased that Mr. Johnson will have the opportunity to be the man and member of our community that he desires.”
In December, Gardner’s office argued the case in front of Judge Mason. The hearing was to determine whether Johnson should be released from prison.
“For four years, the Circuit Attorney’s Office has fought tirelessly to present clear and convincing evidence of Lamar Johnson’s wrongful conviction,” Gardner said at a press conference. “Today we believe we have proved our case with clear and convincing evidence.”
“After this week’s hearing, it is clear why this case is so disturbing,” she said. “The case is a reminder of the importance of ensuring that convictions are rooted in the law, justice, and fundamental fairness. This case shows what happens when the criminal justice system is blinded by the pursuit of a singular conviction, at the expense of the United States Constitution, the laws of the State of Missouri, and the justice it seeks to ensure.”
The Attorney General played politics with this case until the end.
In December, the AG’s office, filed what Gardner called “an outlandish, politically-motivated motion for sanctions against St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner. This motion is a weak attempt to distract from his own office’s failures to disclose evidence and play politics with an innocent man’s – Lamar Johnson’s – life.”
In a response motion, Gardner’s office called the AG’s motion “a misleading and disappointing effort to distract the Court and the public from Lamar Johnson’s innocence with a piece of red herring evidence. It is also a transparent effort to deflect attention away from the Attorney General’s own failures by pointing the finger at someone else before the Attorney General’s own oversights became publicly known.”
Gardner told reporters “This is an amazing day.”
She said, “I want to thank our partners at the Midwest Innocence Project and the attorneys at Bryan Cave for their tireless work in the pursuit of correcting the wrongful conviction of Mr. Johnson. It is always in the best interest of our City, State and Nation to ensure that convictions levied on individuals are correct according to the available evidence and constitutional law.”
She added, “My office takes claims of manifest injustice seriously, and we will continue our work every day on behalf of all the people of the City of St. Louis.”