St. Louis judge questions authority to overturn conviction of man prosecutors say is innocent

St. Louis – A Missouri judge on Thursday questioned if she even has the authority under state law to consider the local prosecutor’s motion contending a St. Louis man was wrongly convicted of a 1994 murder based on prosecutorial and police misconduct that they said led to the framing of an innocent man.

The judge appointed the Attorney General’s office to join the case, and directed all parties to file briefs on whether Missouri law gives local judges the power to overturn convictions based on belated evidence of innocence. Acting on her own, 22nd Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan appointed three attorneys from the Missouri Attorney General’s office to represent the state in the matter earlier this week, explaining Thursday that she believed the local prosecutor has a conflict in attacking the conduct of former members of its own office.

Hogan offered the explanation in response to a question from Assistant Circuit Attorney Jeffrey Estes, who noted at the court hearing that neither his office, the governor, nor Johnson’s counsel had requested the appointment of an outside prosecutor to the case. Hogan later clarified that the state had not been removed from the case.

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At stake is Lamar Johnson’s conviction for the 1994 murder of Marcus Boyd. The victim was shot on his front porch by two men in ski masks. Another man, the only known living eyewitness to the crime, was on the porch with Boyd and later identified Johnson and another man as the culprits.

Last week the local prosecutor, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, filed a motion for a new trial writing that “repeated and prejudicial misconduct” had led to Johnson being convicted despite his innocence. The circuit attorney wrote that a review by her conviction integrity unit established that prosecutors had withheld documents from Johnson and his attorneys that showed thousands of dollars of payments to the only eyewitness to the shooting. After identifying Johnson as the shooter at trial, the eyewitness recanted more than a decade ago.

Midwest Innocence Project

Lamar Johnson

The state’s motion also included sworn statements and depositions from friends of Boyd who denied making statements attributed to them by the lead detective in the case. Those now-disputed statements created a motive for the crime.

The motion comes at a time of conflict between Gardner, who won a 2016 election as a reform prosecutor, and many of the rank and file police. An official of the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association, the union representing St. Louis police officers, responded to her motion by saying she had “no credibility.” In an interview with Injustice Watch, Jeff Roorda called it unclear whether there was new evidence in the case or “if this is part of her crusade against the police department.”

When the motion was filed legal experts warned that, despite agreement by the prosecutor and Johnson’s attorneys, the case faced an uphill battle because the state of Missouri lacks a process that allows for the review of old convictions in the circuit court where the conviction originated.

Gardner, who was present for the hearing, noted in court that her role as a prosecutor allows her to take such actions. “It’s my obligation to correct a wrongful conviction,” she said.

At a press conference following the hearing, Gardner addressed the judge’s concern regarding a possible conflict because of uncovering prosecutorial misconduct. “As the administer of justice, my duty is to number one evaluate misconduct regardless of whether it happens in this office,” Gardner said. “So if you’re saying that a prosecutor does not have a duty to do that, that puts into conflict any law enforcement agency’s ability to investigate wrongdoing in their office.”

Emily Hoerner / Injustice Watch

St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner at a press conference August 1, 2019.

Gardner said that the state let everyone down in this case, including Johnson and family members of the victim.

“Everyone involved has lost. If we want to talk about justice and fairness, and doing our job, then this is an example that we all need to come together, put all our differences aside,” she said. “Let’s do the right thing.”

Gardner declined to comment on whether the office is currently reviewing any other past criminal cases involving the same police and prosecutors in Johnson’s case.

Friends of Johnson said they were confused by what had occurred in the courtroom. One, Ginny Schrappen, said of the hearing, “frankly it makes no sense.”

Attorney Joseph Hogan, who is married to the judge overseeing Johnson’s motion for a new trial, has represented several St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers accused of misconduct. According to the St. Louis American, he is considered a police union attorney.

Johnson is represented by Tricia Bushnell with the Midwest Innocence Project and Lindsay Runnels with Morgan Pilate. Runnels said Johnson feels hopeful that the world is aware of the facts of his case.

“Lawyers are going to talk about this and are going to complicate this and what’s the mechanism and what’s the procedure,” Runnels said at the press conference. “But the real truth is, and this is quite simple: Lamar Johnson is innocent. The state of Missouri agrees. Why is he not home?”