Prosecutors nationwide join fray over St. Louis case of potential wrongful conviction

More than 40 local prosecutors across the country filed a legal brief Thursday supporting the City of St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s effort to overturn the murder conviction of a local man her office has concluded is innocent.

The brief was filed after 22nd Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan questioned whether she even has authority to consider a motion filed by the office of Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner to overturn the conviction of Lamar Johnson, whom Gardner’s office found was convicted based on a combination of police fabrications and withheld evidence by prosecutors. Hogan also appointed the state Attorney General to take part in the proceedings, stating that Gardner’s office had a potential conflict in citing misconduct by prosecutors.

But the coalition of local prosecutors, which includes Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, neighboring St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, and Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, contended Gardner had the obligation to undo a conviction if her office discovered the defendant was innocent.

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“Leaving innocent people behind bars is not only immoral, it is also unethical and antithetical to the job prosecutors have a sworn duty to execute,” said Santa Clara County, Ca., District Attorney Jeff Rosen in a press release. “Letting this ruling stand ultimately erodes our ability to create a fair and just system that people can trust.”

At stake is Johnson’s 1995 murder conviction and life sentence without the opportunity for parole. Marcus Boyd, a friend and former roommate of Johnson’s, was shot on his porch by two men wearing ski masks one October evening in 1994. Another man, James Gregory Elking, was on the porch with Boyd but was left unharmed.

After a review of the case that began last year by the office’s conviction integrity unit, the circuit attorney’s office in July filed a motion to overturn the conviction, stating that St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department detectives had fabricated evidence, and prosecutors from its own office had withheld important information from the defense. The key eyewitness recanted his identification of Johnson, and two other men have confessed to the crime, according to court records.

Johnson, in a telephone interview this week, expressed dismay that he remains in prison as the court decides whether it can proceed. It has been more than three weeks since the circuit attorney’s office filed the request to vacate Johnson’s conviction.

The group of 43 prosecutors, many of whom come from locales with their own established conviction integrity units, stated that Missouri laws allowed for the judge to consider the motion for a new trial, and that Gardner has the responsibility to represent the state in the matter.

“A local prosecutor deserves respect when he or she approaches the Court and asks the Court to correct a legal wrong for the benefit of an innocent person,” the brief states. “This candor should be treated as a qualification for office, not as a factor disqualifying someone from representing the citizens of this State.”

The filing notes that Gardner’s conviction integrity unit uncovered “deeply concerning facts” calling into question the integrity of Johnson’s conviction. The group of prosecutors also noted that it is a prosecutor’s role to correct such a wrong, and that prohibiting Gardner from doing so could undermine the Circuit Attorney and other prosecutors “as ministers of justice ethically bound to correct past injustices.”

The brief expressed concern that Hogan’s decision to appoint the attorney general to assist with the case could strip conviction integrity units of their ability to investigate and review a wide range of past cases. When she appointed the attorney general last month, Hogan said she was not, at that time, removing Gardner’s office.

The group of prosecutors also noted in the court document that the reasoning behind appointing outside counsel and removing a local prosecutor from a case is to ensure the defendant can obtain a fair trial.

“Any disqualification order does not benefit Johnson or grant him a greater likelihood of a fair trial,” the brief states. “Rather, the order would only serve as yet another obstacle for Johnson in vacating his conviction – and even more tragically, he remains in custody as this protracted litigation continues.”