Nationwide prosecutors: St. Louis judge’s ruling in murder case is ‘a symbol of unfairness’

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Armed with a chorus of support from outside legal groups, the St. Louis city prosecutor this week appealed a judge’s refusal to consider the prosecution’s conclusion that a local man had been framed for a 1994 murder and that his conviction should be overturned.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Innocence Project, 34 elected prosecutors and more than 100 legal scholars filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the Missouri appeals court on Wednesday in support for Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner.

Lamar Johnson, the man at the center of the case, has spent nearly 25 years behind bars sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. After conducting a review, Gardner’s conviction integrity unit in July filed a motion for a new trial contending that Johnson’s murder conviction was obtained as a result of prosecutorial misconduct and police fabrications.

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After the motion was filed 22nd Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan, acting on her own, appointed the Missouri Attorney General’s office to also represent the state, ruling that Gardner’s office had a conflict in challenging the actions of her own office. That set off a clash between the two state agencies over whether the motion for a new trial should be heard. Hogan ultimately sided with the attorney general’s office in August, finding that the circuit attorney’s request was 24 years too late, and that state law does now allow the judge to review such cases.

Days before Hogan’s ruling, Johnson expressed dismay during a phone interview from the Jefferson City Correctional Center that he remained locked up in light of the agreement between the prosecution and defense that he is innocent and his conviction should be vacated.

In the brief brought to the Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District, Gardner’s office harshly criticized the judge’s decision to “usurp” the local prosecutor’s power and ethical responsibilities to seek justice by appointing the state attorney general’s office to the case.

The circuit attorney asked the appellate court to remand the case for a new trial or hearing on the evidence. The failure to correct a wrongful conviction poses a “threat to the public’s faith and trust” in the justice system, the brief states. Johnson and his attorneys joined in Gardner’s brief.

“Despite the staggering amount of unrefuted evidence showing Johnson is actually innocent and his conviction was obtained solely through perjured testimony, this appeal is not about the merits of Johnson’s innocence—but rather whether there is anything the Circuit Attorney can do to correct this injustice,” the appellate brief states.

Johnson was convicted for what the state said was his role in the 1994 slaying of his former friend, Marcus Boyd. That October, Boyd was gunned down on his porch by two ski-masked assailants. Another man, James Gregory Elking, was on the porch with Boyd but was left unharmed.

Elking cooperated with authorities and identified Johnson as the shooter at trial, but has since recanted his identification and testimony. He was paid more than $4,000 after agreeing to talk with police and prosecutors, information that was withheld from the defense, according to the motion for a new trial.

In addition to Elking’s recantation and the undisclosed payments, the conviction integrity unit’s review revealed several other pieces of evidence that called into question Johnson’s guilt: Friends of Boyd disputed statements police had attributed to them that provided Johnson with a motive for the murder; two other men credibly confessed to the murder; the trial prosecutor failed to disclose the criminal history of the jailhouse informant who testified that he had overheard Johnson discussing the murder; the prosecutor misled jurors about the benefits the informant would receive in exchange for his cooperation; and a detective had provided false testimony that discredited Johnson’s alibi.

One of the friend-of-the-court briefs was brought by 34 elected prosecutors spanning 21 states, including Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby.

The group of elected prosecutors in the brief contested Hogan’s finding that Gardner had no authority to correct what her office believed was a wrongful conviction. The judge wrongly interfered, they wrote, which led to Johnson’s case becoming a “symbol of unfairness” in the criminal justice system.

The group of prosecutors also sharply criticized Hogan’s appointment of the Missouri Attorney General’s office. They noted in the brief that it was not likely there was a conflict that disqualified an entire office of attorneys based on the actions of one former employee.

The attorney general’s appointment created a “tug-of-war” between the circuit attorney and the attorney general over who could best represent the state, leaving Johnson in the middle, the brief states. They also called the appointment of the outside prosecutors “a solution in search of a problem” that did not exist.

“The trial court’s invitation for prosecutorial turf wars over phantom conflicts will not only strip [conviction integrity units] of any ability to remedy a wide range of past cases, but result in grave consequences for local prosecutors’ offices seeking to prosecute even routine criminal matters,” the brief states.

The prosecutors called on the state appeals court to overturn the judge’s decision, allowing the circuit attorney to request a new trial for Johnson, and find that the circuit attorney has the sole ability to represent the state in this matter.

“It would be a grave mistake to write a free ticket for all future Attorney General administrations to intervene in the daily caseload of duly elected prosecutors throughout this State,” prosecutors warned in the brief.