Missouri appellate court asks high court to review case of potential wrongful conviction

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The Missouri Appellate Court has asked the state’s high court to review whether trial courts have authority to consider a prosecutor’s petition finding that a man was wrongly convicted.

The court’s action transferring the case to the Missouri Supreme Court, filed on Dec. 24, came as the appellate court dismissed an appeal by Lamar Johnson of St. Louis who is seeking to overturn his conviction based on the local prosecutor’s finding that Johnson was framed by police and prosecutors for a 1994 murder.

Though the appellate court could come to no other conclusion that the trial court lacked the authority to hear Johnson’s appeal, the opinion states, the “issues in this case are undeniably important and include questions fundamental to our criminal justice system.”

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Johnson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 1995 for what the state said was his role in the 1994 slaying of his former friend, Marcus Boyd. That October, Boyd was gunned down on his porch by two ski-masked assailants. Another man, James Gregory Elking, was on the porch with Boyd but was left unharmed.

After a review of the case by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s conviction integrity unit, her office in July filed a motion for a new trial contending that Johnson’s murder conviction was obtained as a result of prosecutorial misconduct and police fabrications.

Elking cooperated with authorities and identified Johnson as the shooter at trial, but has since recanted his identification and testimony. He was paid more than $4,000 after agreeing to talk with police and prosecutors, information that was withheld from the defense, according to the motion for a new trial.

Midwest Innocence Project

Lamar Johnson

In addition to Elking’s recantation and the undisclosed payments, the conviction integrity unit’s review revealed several other pieces of evidence that called into question Johnson’s guilt: Friends of Boyd disputed statements police had attributed to them that provided Johnson with a motive for the murder; two other men credibly confessed to the murder; the trial prosecutor failed to disclose the criminal history of the jailhouse informant who testified that he had overheard Johnson discussing the murder; the prosecutor misled jurors about the benefits the informant would receive in exchange for his cooperation; and a detective had provided false testimony that discredited Johnson’s alibi.

Johnson has been imprisoned for more than 25 years.

After Gardner’s office brought the motion for a new trial, 22nd Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Hogan appointed the Missouri Attorney General’s office to join the local prosecutor in representing the state in the matter. The move set off a clash between the two prosecutorial agencies, and the attorney general’s office sought to dismiss the motion for a new trial.

Hogan ultimately sided with the attorney general’s office in August, finding that the circuit attorney’s request was 24 years too late, and that state law does now allow the judge to review such cases.

More than 40 elected prosecutors went on to join a chorus of support for Gardner in her attempt to vacate Johnson’s conviction. Gardner and Johnson both appealed, but the appellate court dismissed Gardner’s claim, finding only the Missouri Attorney General is allowed to represent the state, according to the appellate opinion.

The appellate opinion, authored jointly by Judges Robert M. Clayton III, Robert G. Dowd, Jr., and Roy L. Richter, noted that Johnson’s case poses important questions, including what responsibility elected prosecutors have in correcting wrongful convictions, and that existing laws may need to be reexamined.

“The resolution of these issues is of obvious import and general interest throughout this State,” the opinion states. “But the case has also garnered national attention given the numerous jurisdictions with conviction integrity units facing similar questions of significance to the administration of justice in those states.”