By Leslie Acevedo
JEFFERSON CITY, MO – Lamar Johnson—released in February after spending nearly 28 years behind bars for a murder he has always denied committing—urged the State of Missouri to stop using jailhouse informants to send innocent people to jail.
Johnson’s conviction was overturned and he walked from a St. Louis courtroom a free man on Feb. 14.
“On Nov. 3, 1994 [when he was 20 years old] I was arrested for the murder of my best friend,” said Johnson. Johnson notes police had decided he was their suspect, relying on false testimony from a jailhouse informant to convict him.
Jailhouse informants are detained or incarcerated people who are incentivized to testify against a defendant in exchange for a benefit, explained Johnson.
“Prosecutors often offer jailhouse informants a host of benefits, including reduced charges in their pending criminal case, sentence reductions, special inmate privileges, assistance to their family and sometimes even money,” said Johnson.
Johnson states jailhouse informant testimony is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions.
“At my trial in July 1995, a jailhouse informant testified that he overheard me in a crowded holding area of the jail discussing the murder,” Johnson said. The jailhouse informant told police and the jury he heard [Johnson] yell out this information to a ‘Lamont.’
“There was not a ‘Lamont,’ in jail,” noted Johnson. The jailhouse lied about the benefit offered by prosecution, the number of felony convictions, and treated in a psychiatric hospital, notes Johnson.
Johnson said he never gave up, proving the “informant” lied.
“Without proper protections in place, the use of jailhouse informants will continue to send innocent people to prison and victims of crimes will continue to wait for true accountability,” said Johnson.
Republican State Sen. Nick Schrore filed Senate Bill 489, aiming to make sure a jailhouse informant is reliable before his or her testimony is used in a criminal case, which would require prompt disclosure of specific jailhouse witness evidence, said Johnson.
Johnson said that while nothing can give him or his family back those 28 years back, but if a law like Senate Bill 489 existed, he might have had a chance at trial.
Johnson argued that “passing this legislation would be an important step toward ensuring accuracy and reliability in our criminal trials by requiring safeguards before the state can use jailhouse informant testimony. A fair and reliable criminal justice system is our shared goal and this legislation gets us one step closer to equal justice for all Missourians.”