St. Louis prosecutor: Fabricated and hidden evidence by police, prosecutor led to wrongful conviction

Prosecutors in St. Louis said in an explosive set of charges that an innocent St. Louis man was wrongly convicted of murder in 1995 after police fabricated trial evidence and prosecutors hid information from defense attorneys.

St.. Louis Circuit Attorney

The photo array James Gregory Elking viewed after the murder.

An innocent St. Louis man was wrongly convicted of murder in 1995 after police fabricated trial evidence and prosecutors hid information from defense attorneys, the St. Louis prosecutor contends in a motion made public Tuesday.

The explosive charges, made in a 66-page motion for a new trial for Lamar Johnson filed in the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court for the City of St. Louis, come at a time of significant strain between police and the reform-minded prosecutor, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, who took office in 2017.

Last year, Gardner’s conviction integrity unit began reviewing Johnson’s case after the prisoner’s lawyers brought it to the office. Attorneys from the Midwest Innocence Project, along with Morgan Pilate lawyer Lindsay Runnels, have jointly represented Johnson since 2014. Johnson was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for what the state said was his role in the 1994 slaying of his former close friend Marcus Boyd.

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Midwest Innocence Project

Lamar Johnson

The review found that in 1994 and 1995 police fabricated evidence that linked Johnson to the crime. And during Johnson’s trial, the motion states, prosecutors failed to disclose the extensive criminal history of a jailhouse informant and more than $4,000 in payments to the only known living eyewitness to the shooting.

“The State has reviewed the evidence and conducted its own investigation and is convinced that Johnson is innocent and that repeated and prejudicial government misconduct occurred,” the motion states.

The motion comes amid a string of conflicts between the prosecutors and police in the City of St. Louis. Most recently, Gardner announced she was putting 22 officers on an exclusion list, which bars them from presenting cases to her office. Those officers were included in a database that collected potentially troublesome Facebook posts by members of law enforcement in St. Louis and seven other jurisdictions nationwide. The database was launched by the Plain View Project and revealed in an Injustice Watch report co-published with Buzzfeed News.

Seven of the officers on Gardner’s exclusion list were permanently banned, meaning Gardner’s office will no longer prosecute cases, seek search warrants or consider cases in which those officers are essential witnesses. The other 15, the prosecutor’s office said, would be evaluated to determine their potential reinstatement to bring cases.

That announcement was quickly attacked by Jeff Roorda, the business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, who was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stating “There’s no due process in what Kim Gardner did today. It’s just panic at the disco.”

The police association sought a protective order when Gardner’s office first announced the existence of the exclusion list last year.

Gardner’s office also recently carried out the murder prosecution of a white officer who fatally shot a black man — a case that ended in an acquittal after a nonjury trial — and in the last year brought charges against at least six St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers for on- and off-duty conduct.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney

An example of the type of mask worn during the murder.

The new motion reviews the investigation and prosecution that followed after Boyd’s murder. He and another man, James Gregory Elking, were on the porch of Boyd’s St. Louis home one October evening in 1994 when two assailants with their faces obscured by ski masks approached, shot Boyd, and fled on foot. Elking was left unharmed.

Less than a week after the shooting Johnson and another man, Phillip Campbell, were charged with murder and armed criminal action. After Johnson was convicted, Campbell plead guilty to voluntary homicide.

The circuit attorney’s office wrote that in the decades since the case went to trial, the sole eyewitness recanted his testimony and identification of Johnson, friends of the deceased disputed statements police said they made that provided a motive for the murder, and Campbell and another man credibly confessed in sworn statements to committing the crime alone.

The police incident report written after the shooting states that Johnson’s name had surfaced as a suspect. Police also learned that a man known initially only as Greg was on the porch with Boyd.

Prosecutors noted in the motion that police focused in on Johnson “before a single witness had been substantively interviewed and before the only eyewitness ‘Greg’ had been identified and located.”

Shortly after the murder, lead St. Louis city police detective Joseph Nickerson interviewed several men and women close to Boyd. In police reports, Nickerson wrote that the victim’s girlfriend and several other friends had each described a feud between Boyd and Johnson.

The prosecutor’s office now believes that several of those police narratives, which provided a motive for the killing, were “false and fabricated,” according to the motion for a new trial. Each of the four witnesses have disputed the statements Nickerson attributed to them in depositions or sworn statements.

Four days after Boyd was killed, Nickerson met with Elking at a diner. According to court records, Elking told the detective what he had witnessed, and that only the noses and eyes of the gunmen were visible. Nickerson then showed Elking a five-photo array of potential suspects, which included photos of both Johnson and Campbell. According to the police report, Elking said Johnson was one of the gunmen.

Elking, however, refused to sign or initial the back of the photograph.

Later that night, police brought Elking into the station to view two live lineups of suspects. The motion states that Elking viewed the lineup that included Johnson three times before identifying another man, a filler from the jail, as the culprit. He viewed the other lineup, which included Campbell, but could not make an identification.

Johnson Campbell lineup

St. Louis Circuit Attorney

The lineups viewed by Elking, including Johnson (third from left) and Campbell (far right).

After an elevator ride with Nickerson, Elking’s ability to identify Johnson and Campbell changed dramatically. According to the police report, Elking admitted to the detective and several others at a fourth floor office that he knew which individuals in the lineup were the gunmen because Johnson had a lazy eye and Campbell had a scar above his eye. It was the first time police recorded that Elking had mentioned those physical features, the motion states. He also told the officers that he had lied and misidentified one of the true perpetrators out of fear, records show.

At trial, Elking, the key witness, reiterated the identification he made to Nickerson. But by 2003, Elking had recanted his testimony and identification of Johnson. In an effort to clear his conscience, Elking sent a letter to St. Louis Rev. Larry Rice. He wrote in the letter that he was unable to identify anyone in the lineup or photo arrays because he had not seen the gunmen’s faces, and he did not know who they were.

Elking letter

St. Louis Circuit Attorney

Part of the letter Elking wrote to Rev. Rice.

Elking wrote that police told him to say the reason he had not originally identified Johnson and Campbell was because he was scared.

“The detectives and me had a meeting with the Prosecutor Dwight Warren and convinced me, that they could help me financially and move me & my family out of our apartment & and relocate use [sic] in the County out of harms [sic] way,” Elking wrote in the letter to Rice. “ They also convinced me who they said they knew who murdered Marcus Boyd.”

Records uncovered during the conviction integrity unit review showed that the state had arranged payments to Elking totaling more than $4,200 for moving fees, the deposit on his new home, and other expenses. The payments began almost immediately after Elking agreed to cooperate with police and prosecutors, and were not disclosed or released to defense attorneys before or after Johnson’s trial.

Elking tickets

St. Louis Circuit Attorney

A note found in the prosecutor’s file showing the dismissal of pending tickets against eyewitness Elking.

The state also dismissed several traffic violations and tickets on Elking’s behalf before Johnson’s trial, records show. Those records were not disclosed to the defense either.

“From 2009-2014, Johnson’s counsel submitted ten written requests for documents evidencing the payments to Elking to various agencies, including the Attorney General, the St. Louis Police Department, and the Victim’s Compensation Fund,” the motion states. “Not a single agency disclosed the records, and in fact, the existence of the records was denied.”

St. Louis Circuit Attorney

Records of payments made to eyewitness Elking. The payments were not disclosed until now.

In 2010, Johnson’s legal team was told by the Circuit Attorney’s Office that the records did not exist, and in 2014 Johnson’s criminal file was released but did not include records of any payments or other aid given to Elking, the motion states.

“Without Elking’s manufactured identification there would not have been any evidence connecting Johnson to the crime and an arrest warrant would not have issued,” the motion states. “Elking was the center of the State’s gossamer thin case against Johnson.”

At Johnson’s 1995 trial, jurors heard Elking positively identify Johnson as one of the gunmen. They also heard from two other witnesses — a jailhouse informant and Detective Nickerson — whose testimony supported the theory that Johnson was involved in the crime. In the motion, prosecutors now dispute the credibility of both witnesses.

One was jailhouse informant William Mock.

Mock testified that while he was in lockup at the county jail he overheard Johnson discussing Boyd’s murder. According to court records, Mock said he heard Johnson state that police did not have the “white boy,” or the murder weapon (Elking, the eyewitness, is white). After overhearing the exchange, Mock said he reached out to a detective. He testified that he asked only that lead assistant circuit attorney Dwight Warren write a letter to the parole board on his behalf in exchange for his cooperation.

Jurors and the defense did not learn about Mock’s lengthy 200-page criminal record, the motion for a new trial states, nor did the state disclose information about another case in which Mock had served as an informant under “bizarrely similar” circumstances. Years earlier while being detained in a county jail, Mock had told detectives he had overheard another homicide confession.

Mock’s pretrial deposition testimony.

“When William Mock was specifically asked whether he had been a witness or testified in a criminal case, he lied, and the State did not correct the record,” the motion states.

The prosecutor also misled jurors, the court, and Johnson’s counsel by stating that the only benefit Mock was going to receive in exchange for his testimony was a letter to the parole board, according to the motion.

“That testimony by the State was false, and [assistant circuit attorney] Dwight Warren knew it was false,” the motion states.

In addition to writing to the parole board, Warren intervened in disciplinary matters on Mock’s behalf and provided him with cigarettes and coffee while in lockup, according to letters that the two exchanged for months after the trial.

At the trial, Detective Nickerson offered testimony to diminish the statements of a defense witness who said Johnson was with her and other friends the night of the shooting, miles from where Boyd was killed. The witness, Erika Barrow, said Johnson had been there the entire night, except for about five minutes, court records show.

Nickerson testified that he drove from where Barrow said Johnson was and where Boyd was shot between 20 and 50 times. That drive, he said, would take no more than five minutes.

Crime scene map

St. Louis Circuit Attorney

A map showing the distance between where Johnson said he was and where the murder occurred.

The Circuit Attorney’s motion states there is no record of Nickerson’s route investigation in the police reports, the route with no traffic would actually have taken roughly 20 minutes roundtrip, and other evidence indicated that the gunmen arrived and fled on foot.

“The testimony offered by the State that Johnson could have traveled to the scene, picked up Campbell, killed Boyd, dropped off Campbell, and returned to 3907 Lafayette in a matter of minutes was false and the State knew or should have known it was false,” the motion states.

The conviction integrity unit’s motion also notes that Campbell and another individual, James Howard, have credibly confessed to committing the murder of Boyd.

Campbell, now deceased, and Howard both admitted in multiple sworn statements to shooting Boyd. Both said that Johnson was in no way involved in the crime, the motion states, and both provided information about what occurred, the motive, and other information that is corroborated by other evidence.

Howard, who is currently serving a life sentence for murder, could face additional risks by admitting to the crime. Missouri is a state that utilizes the death penalty.

None of the police involved in the investigation into Boyd’s death are currently working for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, according to employment records from December 2018. One detective involved in the investigation, Ronald Jackson, pleaded guilty to a federal theft charge for on-duty behavior in 2009.

Warren, the lead prosecutor at Johnson’s trial, was ousted from the circuit attorney’s office shortly after Gardner took office, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Before serving as an assistant circuit attorney and heading the homicide unit, Warren was an officer with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.