Mo. Attorney General fights to maintain conviction despite prosecutor’s innocence conclusion

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The Missouri Attorney General’s office this week rebuked arguments from the city of St. Louis Circuit Attorney, defense attorneys and more than 40 prosecutors across the country, contending in a legal brief that a local judge has no right to consider vacating a conviction of a prisoner the prosecutor says is innocent.

“The Circuit Attorney’s Office did not have the power to file its motion, and this Court does not have power to grant the motion,” the brief states.

The Attorney General’s response is the latest development in the increasingly tension-filled fight over Lamar Johnson’s 1995 murder conviction. Last month, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s office filed a motion requesting a new trial after an internal review of Johnson’s conviction. The conviction integrity unit review revealed a slew of evidence, including previously undisclosed payments and benefits awarded to a key eyewitness in the case, calling Johnson’s conviction into question.

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Gardner’s office wrote in the motion for a new trial that Johnson was innocent, and that police and prosecutorial misconduct had led to his conviction.

In 1994, Johnson’s friend and former roommate Marcus Boyd was shot and killed by two ski-masked assailants on the porch of his home. Another man on the porch with Boyd was left unharmed, and later identified Johnson as one of the shooters. That man later recanted his identification, and the prosecutor’s review found more than $4,000 of undisclosed payments that were made to him after he began cooperating with authorities.

Shortly after the motion was filed last month, 22nd Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Hogan on her own appointed the state Attorney General to join in the case. At a subsequent court hearing, Hogan questioned whether she could even review the motion, and said that she had appointed outside counsel because of a potential conflict in Gardner attacking the behavior and actions of former employees. Gardner’s office was not, at that time, removed from the case.

And as the court tussles over whether to review the prosecutor’s motion, Johnson sits in prison. He expressed dismay earlier this week at his continued incarceration.

Gardner filed a brief, joined by Johnson’s attorneys, arguing that the judge has the right to review the motion, and that prosecutors are ethically bound to correct past injustices. That view was supported by 43 local prosecutors from across the country who filed a friend-of-the-court brief. The attorney general’s office wrote in the brief that Gardner’s responsibility ended after disclosing evidence that should have been revealed to the defense before trial, and that the attorney general’s office was correctly appointed to the case. The brief also states that Johnson had tried on several other occasions to have his conviction reversed, and that in those instances courts upheld the conviction.

“In those cases, Johnson raised almost all of the same claims he presents in his latest motion for new trial,” the attorney general’s brief states. “Each court to review Johnson’s claims has found that he failed to prove his innocence or any error that would justify reversing his convictions.”

The last time Johnson raised a new claim of innocence in court was in 2005, according to the Attorney General’s brief.

Lindsay Runnels, an attorney for Johnson, said those claims were filed without an attorney. Johnson never received a hearing on any of those claims in court, she said.

In a press release Friday, Johnson’s attorney Tricia Bushnell from the Midwest Innocence Project said the attorney general’s brief was “deeply troubling,” and “immoral.”

“What is the attorney general’s interest in keeping an innocent person in prison?” Bushnell said.