The Missouri Supreme Court this week dismissed the appeal of a St. Louis man serving a life sentence for a murder the St. Louis Circuit Attorney has said he did not commit.
The decision is the latest setback for Lamar Johnson, who has been imprisoned for roughly 26 years following a 1995 murder conviction that prosecutors say was the result of prosecutorial misconduct and police fabrications.
In 2018, the circuit attorney’s conviction integrity unit began reviewing Johnson’s case and found a plethora of evidence that called his guilt into question: Undisclosed payments to a key eyewitness who has since recanted his identification of Johnson, credible confessions from two other men who said they committed the murder, and the prosecutor’s failure to disclose the criminal history of a jailhouse informant, among other issues.
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St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner filed a motion for a new trial in July 2019, but her request was dismissed by a local judge who said the city’s top prosecutor did not have the authority to belatedly correct a wrongful conviction. The judge on her own appointed the Missouri Attorney General’s office to also represent the state in the matter, launching an increasingly fraught battle between the two agencies.
The state’s highest court upheld that decision this week on procedural grounds, saying that Gardner lacked the ability under state law to file a motion for a new trial so long after Johnson’s original conviction. All seven of the court’s justices agreed with the conclusion, which did not address any of Johnson’s innocence claims.
Johnson’s attorneys, Lindsay Runnels and Tricia Rojo Bushnell, wrote in a statement that the decision revealed the “remarkable gaps” in the state’s justice system. They called on state legislators to address the problem.
“It is sad that rules and technicalities matter more than someone’s innocence,” Johnson said upon hearing the court’s decision, according to the statement.
In a pair of concurring opinions, three justices raised the need for alternative ways to deal with belated innocence claims.
“One’s sense of justice and belief that innocent people should not be imprisoned for crimes they did not commit requires there to be some mechanism for the state to redress an error it helped create,” wrote Chief Justice George W. Draper in his concurring opinion. Draper noted that the legislature could pass a law authorizing prosecuting attorneys to file motions for new trials after discovering evidence of wrongful convictions.
Michael Wolff, a former Missouri Supreme Court justice, said the court was restricted by existing laws in Johnson’s case. He said he hoped the legislature would pay attention to the issue because it is “fundamental” to our justice system.
“Judges, courts, juries, we don’t always get it right. So there’s a question of the value in having finality,” Wolff said. “But there is also the question of doing justice.”
A group of retired Missouri judges, legal scholars, criminal defense attorneys and 45 elected prosecutors nationwide had urged the court in friend-of-the-court briefs to allow Gardner to properly investigate and correct wrongful convictions.
In a statement Tuesday, Gardner said, “We will continue to seek justice in this case, and will use every tool within the power of the Office of the Circuit Attorney to ensure the pursuit of justice for individuals where there is evidence of a wrongful conviction.”
Local prosecutors in some other states, including Illinois, are allowed to revisit old convictions and request to vacate them after new evidence comes to light. In Missouri, state law allows local prosecutors to handle old cases where belated DNA testing could change the verdict in a case. But older convictions without new DNA evidence land in the hands of the Missouri Attorney General’s office.
Johnson’s attorneys said they now plan to file a habeas corpus petition, asking a court to rule that his continued detention is unlawful. Johnson will again face the office of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has previously opposed his requests for relief.
An Injustice Watch investigation last year found that the attorney general’s office had opposed calls for relief in nearly every wrongful conviction case that came before it and has been vacated since 2000. That includes 27 cases in which the office fought to uphold the convictions of people who were eventually exonerated.
In the concurring opinions, Justices Draper and Laura Denvir Stith separately criticized the actions of the attorney general’s office in Johnson’s case. Draper called the attorney general’s position “disingenuous,” while Stith wrote that she hoped the office would not continue to deny Johnson an opportunity for a hearing on the merits of his innocence claim.
“The attorney general misunderstands the full extent of the prosecution’s role in the justice system,” Stith wrote. “The United States Supreme Court has explained that the prosecutor’s role is not simply one of being an adversary to the defense.” Rather, she wrote, quoting a previous Missouri Supreme Court decision, “the state attorney’s role is to see that justice is done.”