Judge throws out Missouri man’s conviction, confirming his innocence in 1994 murder

Judge throws out Missouri man’s conviction, confirming his innocence in 1994 murder

Long before he had a graying beard, Lamar Johnson wrote to the St. Louis judge who oversaw his 1995 trial, saying he had received letters from another man admitting guilt to the murder for which he had just been convicted.

“Mr. Shaw I did not kill Markus Boyd,” Johnson wrote nearly three decades ago, “and I hope someday justice will prevail.”

Following years of legal battles, that day came Tuesday, when Circuit Judge David Mason announced he was granting the St. Louis circuit attorney’s motion to vacate Johnson’s conviction. Prosecutors had determined Johnson, who spent 28 years in prison, had nothing to do with Boyd’s killing.

The crowd in the courtroom cheered as Mason announced his decision. Johnson — who, at 49, has spent more than half of his life in prison — wiped tears from his eyes.

Mason’s ruling, in which he called Johnson’s innocence “clear and convincing,” marked the end to a years-long effort to free Johnson.

Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner became convinced of Johnson’s innocence in 2019, but she did not have a legal avenue to release him.

After other legal fights with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, Gardner sought Johnson’s release under a state law that went into effect in 2021 that allows prosecutors to petition a court to exonerate prisoners they deemed wrongly convicted.

The law gave Jackson County prosecutors a path to free Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man who spent 42 years in prison for a triple murder he did not commit. Before Tuesday, Strickland was the only person exonerated under the new avenue, which lawmakers changed, in part, because of Johnson’s incarceration and The Star’s reporting on Strickland’s case.

Gardner said Tuesday the courts righted a wrong.

“Most importantly, we celebrate with Mr. Johnson and his family as he walks out of the courtroom as a free man,” she said.

In a statement, Johnson’s attorneys with the Midwest Innocence Project and the law firms Morgan Pilate and Lathrop GPM said they were ecstatic to be welcoming him home. But they called his case yet another example of how difficult it is to free innocent prisoners in Missouri.

“It took an innocence organization, three law firms, the Circuit Attorney, both chambers of Missouri’s legislature and the Governor’s signature on a law passed for him, to free Lamar Johnson,” they said. “That is intolerable. That is not justice. We can and must do better.”

The judge’s ruling Tuesday comes more than a month after St. Louis prosecutors sought to prove Johnson’s innocence during a December hearing. The AG’s office contended that Johnson was guilty at that proceeding, opposing his release like the office has in nearly every innocence claim to come before it in the last two decades.

Local prosecutors attacked that record in a recent court filing, saying the office’s “blind opposition” to innocence claims is political, “keeps wrongfully convicted people in prison longer and erodes integrity and faith in the justice system.”

“The (attorney general’s office) is doing to Johnson what it has always done — no matter the evidence, no matter the law, no matter what is just,” special assistants to the circuit attorney’s office wrote. “The justice and its Constitution demands more. Markus Boyd and Lamar Johnson deserve more.”

Then 21, Johnson was convicted in 1995 of first-degree murder in the Oct. 30, 1994, nighttime shooting of Boyd, who was found on the porch of a brick home in St. Louis’ Dutchtown neighborhood. Johnson was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

At the urging of Johnson’s lawyers, Gardner’s conviction integrity unit in 2018 started reviewing his case. The next year, she released a report detailing how her office determined Johnson “had nothing to do with Boyd’s murder.” Current prosecutors found unconstitutional police practices and “serious prosecutorial misconduct” throughout his case.

For more than two decades, Johnson’s co-defendant, Phillip Campbell, and another man, James Howard, confessed to shooting Boyd and provided a motive, Gardner’s office said. Campbell pleaded guilty after Johnson was convicted and got a seven-year sentence. Howard, who was never charged in the killing, is now in prison for a murder he committed three years later, in 1997.

Howard took the stand in December, again admitting that he and Campbell, who is deceased, killed Boyd that fateful night. Howard testified he came forward because he was “trying to right” his wrongs, which included Johnson sitting in prison for his crimes.

“I didn’t think they would convict him because, sh–, he didn’t have nothing to do with it,” Howard testified.

Campbell and Howard’s confessions included details that were corroborated by physical evidence — the “masks worn” and “the guns used,” among other things, according to the circuit attorney’s office. In its post-hearing briefs, Gardner’s office said Howard’s testimony was made more credible by the fact that he exposed himself to another potential murder charge.

The AG’s office argued that Howard lied on Johnson’s behalf, saying he had “little to fear” from another conviction. He is already serving a life sentence and since he was 17 at the time of Boyd’s murder, would not be eligible for the death penalty.

Howard was “so unbelievable,” the AG’s office contended, that the circuit attorney’s office was “apparently unwilling to charge him” despite his confession — an assertion that Gardner’s office called “baseless and reckless speculation.”

At the hearing, the judge asked Gardner if she intended to charge Howard.

“It’s being reviewed, your Honor,” she responded.

Last year, a Star report detailed how the dubious testimony of a repeat jailhouse informant — who had a swastika tattoo and once called Johnson a racial slur — helped prosecutors convict Johnson, who is Black. The informant, who was white, claimed to have heard Johnson confess to the killing while in jail, but his story, Gardner’s office determined, “was and is not credible.”

The circuit attorney’s office has also noted that Ronald Jackson, who obtained the informant’s statements, was later indicted for using his position as a then-St. Louis police officer to “steal from arrested individuals.” He was sentenced in 2010 to 18 months in prison.

Another issue at Johnson’s trial, and during the recent evidence hearing, was Johnson’s eyes.

The prosecution’s star witness at trial, Greg Elking, testified he identified Johnson as one of the gunmen who wore black, ski-like masks during the murder because one had a lazy eye — and Johnson’s eyes “looked familiar.” But Elking recanted for years, as he did on the stand in December, saying his testimony “should not have been a factor” in Johnson’s conviction.

Former assistant circuit attorney Dwight Warren, who prosecuted Johnson, said in December that without Elking’s identification, he would not have filed charges against Johnson.

“Oh, absolutely not,” Warren said. “I mean, I didn’t have any evidence.”

Johnson will not be compensated by the state for his wrongful conviction because Missouri law only allows for payments to people exonerated with DNA evidence. His legal team has set up an online fundraiser for him, which has raised more than $9,000.

“Once he is released he will enter the free world with no resources to begin his new life outside of prison walls,” his lawyers wrote. “While he has worked inside prison for more than two decades, he is paid only cents per hour.”


© 2023 The Kansas City Star

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