St. Louis prosecutor agrees with defense on wrongful conviction; but is that enough?

The St. Louis city prosecutors’ effort to overturn a conviction based on police and prosecutorial misconduct faces an uphill legal battle, legal experts said this week.

The motion contends a St. Louis man named Lamar Johnson was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole based on evidence that the police fabricated, and information prosecutors failed to disclose to the defense. It marks the first time a Missouri prosecutor has asked the courts to review and remedy a past conviction.

Unlike several other states, Missouri has no process for such a request, experts said.

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“It remains to be seen whether the conviction integrity unit can find a viable procedural mechanism that will allow them to walk into the court that imposed the conviction and say a mistake was made and stipulate to fixing it,” said Sean O’Brien, law professor at the University of Missouri — Kansas City, who said he and others have struggled over how to address the problem.

Midwest Innocence Project

Lamar Johnson

At issue is the motion, which followed an investigation by the conviction integrity unit of the St. Louis prosecutor’s office. It comes amid a string of conflicts between the rank-and-file police and the prosecutor’s office.

The business manager for the St. Police Officers Association responded to the motion this week by questioning Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s own credibility amid turmoil surrounding the first term top prosecutor.

“If there’s new evidence, then this guy should get a new trial,” Roorda, whose union represents most rank-and-file St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers, said in a telephone interview. “The problem is, this prosecutor has got no credibility, so it casts doubt on whether there’s new evidence or if this is part of her crusade against the police department.”

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department declined to comment on the motion, with a representative saying it does not discuss pending cases. The Circuit Attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

The motion for a new trial includes affidavits and depositions from several individuals police interviewed who denied making the statements a detective had attributed to them, outlined in an Injustice Watch review of the motion.

A series of incidents have divided the police union and Gardner, who took office in 2017.

She first created a list last year of police officers that the circuit attorney’s office would not accept cases from based on credibility concerns.

She added 22 more officers’ names to that exclusion list last month after those officers were included in a database of potentially troubling public Facebook posts. The union has leveled its own credibility concerns about the Circuit Attorney, who was fined for campaign finance violations by the Missouri Ethics Committee earlier this year, and whose former investigator was recently indicted on charges related to his role in investigating a criminal case.

The executive director of a national organization created to help reform-minded prosecutors succeed said the conviction integrity unit’s work on Johnson’s case “underscores the efforts of Kim Gardner in St. Louis to try to bring about mechanisms that would enhance police accountability.”

Miriam Krisnky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, said that such units are developing as prosecutors recognize a responsibility to not just secure convictions, but also look backward.

“You always want to look at how did this happen and why did this happen,” Krinsky said.

Many states already have a process in place for this type of review, Krinsky said. The law is still developing though, she said, and the existence of a conviction integrity unit can force jurisdictions to navigate what to do when problem cases are discovered.

One of Johnson’s attorneys, Lindsay Runnels, said her client is thrilled that the state has acknowledged his innocence. She said Johnson feels vindicated and is hopeful that his case will receive a meaningful review. Johnson has been incarcerated for nearly 25 years.

Runnels said the possibility that Johnson may be unable to present evidence in court to review his conviction, even with the prosecutor’s agreement, is “incongruent” with what is expected in the court system.

“What a failure of the justice system if we can’t figure out how to do something with consequences like this,” Runnels said.