A St. Louis man imprisoned for a murder that the local prosecutor said he did not commit expressed dismay this week at why he remains behind bars.
“I just don’t understand why I can’t go home,” Lamar Johnson said in a telephone interview from the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
In the three weeks since the St. Louis city prosecutor’s office announced in a motion for a new trial that police and prosecutorial misconduct had led to the framing of an innocent man, the case has stalled as questions remain over whether Missouri law even permits a judge to review a prosecutors’ contention of a wrongful conviction.
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All the while Johnson sits in prison where, he said, “It’s not something that gets better.”
Last month, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s office brought a set of explosive charges against former local police and prosecutors after a review of Johnson’s case by its conviction integrity unit. After the review that began last year, prosecutors wrote in the motion for a new trial that detectives from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department fabricated evidence, and prosecutors from its office withheld important information related to the 1994 murder Johnson is convicted of committing.
In the motion for a new trial, the circuit attorney’s office wrote that Johnson was innocent of the murder of Marcus Boyd based on a plethora of evidence including the key eyewitness’s recantation, and the credible confessions of two other men who said they alone were involved in the slaying.
Johnson said he is grateful that Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner and her office reviewed his case and shared what they found, but that things have gotten more confusing.
After the motion was filed, legal experts warned that Johnson likely faced an uphill legal battle despite agreement between the prosecution and defense that Johnson’s conviction should be overturned. Unlike many other states, Missouri lacks a process that allows a trial judge to review old convictions.
In court August 1, 22nd Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan requested that attorneys on the case provide written arguments on whether Missouri laws even allow her to review a case based on belated evidence of innocence.
Days after that hearing, Johnson was swiftly taken back to prison in Jefferson City, Mo., to continue serving a life sentence without parole for the crime prosecutors now say he did not commit. Johnson has been imprisoned for more than 24 years.
Johnson said it has been emotionally difficult to be back in a prison cell in Jefferson City, Mo., after briefly going back to St. Louis where the motion was filed. He said he felt like freedom in the city he called home was so close, just outside the jail’s walls.
“It seems like it’s just out of your grasp,” Johnson said. “And you’re pushed back to where you started from.”
Johnson was arrested in 1994, days after two men in ski masks shot and killed Boyd on the porch of his home one October evening. Another man, James Gregory Elking, was on the porch with Boyd and witnessed the shooting but was left unharmed.
Police said that Elking identified Johnson as one of the shooters after viewing a photo array a few days after Boyd was slain. Elking refused to sign the photo, but Johnson was soon brought in for questioning, police records show.
Johnson said he could not believe at the time that he had been identified as one of the men who killed Boyd. He and Boyd had been roommates and good friends, he said, and he viewed Boyd as an older brother.
When Johnson was brought in to the police station, he said he told police where he was and who he was with that night, at a friend’s home that was about three miles away from where Boyd was shot.
Johnson later learned that police detective Ralph Campbell wrote in a report that Johnson had partially confessed to the murder while he was being questioned about an unrelated crime. According to the police report Johnson questioned aloud why he had “let the white guy live.” Elking is white.
Johnson denied ever making those statements to the detective.
In the conviction integrity unit’s review of the case, prosecutors wrote that the office “does not believe that Johnson volunteered a confession to Detective Campbell after he denied involvement at arrest, during questioning, throughout trial, and for the twenty-four years thereafter.”
Elking also viewed a live lineup that included Johnson, but identified another man as the culprit, according to police reports. He later told police, according to court records, that he knew Johnson was the shooter but had been too scared to identify him.
But years later, Elking recanted. In a letter to a reverend in St. Louis, Elking wrote that he had always been unable to identify the shooters, but trusted that the police and prosecutors knew who the true culprits were.
The defense was not told until recently that Elking was paid more than $4,000 after he began cooperating.
At trial, jurors heard about Johnson’s supposed confession to the detective, and also heard a jailhouse informant testify that he overheard Johnson discussing Boyd’s murder while in the county lockup. The informant’s lengthy criminal history, his prior cooperation as a jailhouse informant in another similar case, and the benefits he received in exchange for testifying against Johnson were not disclosed to jurors or the defense, the motion for a new trial states.
Jurors also heard Elking identify Johnson as one of the shooters, and heard testimony from the lead detective on the case that aimed to discredit Johnson’s alibi.
To undercut Erika Barrow’s defense testimony that Johnson had been with her and other friends the entire night that Boyd was shot, except for about five minutes, the lead detective testified that the drive between Johnson’s friend’s home and where Boyd was shot would take only a matter of minutes. Prosecutors said in their motion for a new trial that the detective’s testimony was not true. Nor was there any evidence that the detective had investigated how long that route would take to drive, the motion states.
In the phone interview, Johnson said going through his trial was one of the scariest experiences in his life. He did not fully understand the process, he said, but he knew it was not going well.
When he was found guilty, he said he was in shock, “paralyzed” by the jury’s decision. He said he looked to his attorney for comfort, but when he got back to the jail it really hit him. He did not want to come out of his cell, he said.
At first, Johnson said he was hopeful that his conviction would be reversed and that the truth would come out. But that faded. “As time goes on it just gets worse,” Johnson said. Johnson said he felt “powerless,” at times, but could not give up trying to have his case reviewed.
If Johnson is freed, he said his first priority will be reuniting with his two daughters and elderly mother. After that, he said he plans to experience parts of life he has encountered only through books and movies for the past 24 years.
“There’s just so many things that people take for granted,” Johnson said. “I’ll hug a tree, I haven’t touched a tree. I’ll go outside for a run at night in the rain. Simple, small things.”