Criminal Justice

45 Prosecutors Ask Missouri's Supreme Court To Give Lamar Johnson a New Trial

Lamar Johnson, who is serving his 25th year in prison, has been absolved of responsibility for a 1994 murder. A circuit judge says it's too late to give him a new trial.

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Lamar Johnson is serving his 25th year in prison for a murder he almost certainly didn't commit. On Monday, 45 prosecutors asked the Missouri Supreme Court to grant Johnson a new trial.

As Reason previously reported, Johnson was convicted of the 1994 murder of Marcus Boyd. In order for Johnson to have actually killed Boyd, he would have needed to leave an apartment party, travel three miles to commit the murder, and return to the apartment on foot all within the span of five minutes. While this is beyond the realm of possibility, Johnson's case was doomed by investigative fabrication, perjured testimony, the suppression of exculpatory evidence, and an unreliable jailhouse informant. One of the men responsible for his conviction was lead detective Joseph Nickerson, who falsified four witness statements and even offered a man a $4,000 bribe to identify Johnson as the killer.

The actual killers not only confessed to the murder but absolved Johnson of involvement. Still, Johnson sits in prison. The Midwest Innocence Project has taken his case on.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who stands by Johnson's innocence, filed a motion for a new trial in July 2019. Circuit Judge Elizabeth B. Hogan ruled against the motion just one month later, saying that it was 24 years too late. Hogan stood by a court rule that only allowed for a motion for a new trial to be scheduled within 15 days of a conviction.

On Monday, 45 prosecutors filed an amicus brief, available here, in support of Gardner's efforts. They've asked the trial court to reverse its August decision.

The prosecutors expressed concern that the court stopped Gardner from retrying the case because of procedural deadlines. The prosecutors maintain that waiving such a deadline falls within the realm of Gardner's discretion and add they are "deeply troubled" by the court's conclusion that Gardner has no power to remedy a false conviction.

"The incarceration of an innocent person at the hands of his own government is an intolerable event," reads the brief. "When an innocent person becomes enmeshed in the gears of that system, the officials empowered by the public to turn on the machinery are not powerless to turn it off."

Unfortunately, the prosecutors advocating for Johnson face another obstacle. A proposed law in the state legislature seeks to give Missouri's attorney general the power to take over cases where local prosecutors refuse to file charges. The bill was proposed, in part, because of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, whose name appears on the Monday brief. Like Gardner, Bell is visibly attempting to reform the county's criminal justice system by exercising prosecutorial discretion in cases.

If passed, the attorney general would be empowered to prosecute cases where local prosecutors have already decided charges would be unduly harsh or wasteful to taxpayers.

There is already tension between the local prosecutors and Attorney General Eric Schmitt, considering he was appointed by the trial court to serve as a prosecutor alongside Gardner in Johnson's legal proceedings. Schmitt is opposed to retrying Johnson's case because of the procedural deadline and there are no clear boundaries between Schmitt and Gardner's duties on the case.

The brief further asks the Missouri Supreme Court to allow Gardner alone to serve as the prosecutor in the case. The prosecutors argued that the attorney general did not have the jurisdiction, nor any legitimate reason allowed by state law, to be appointed.

Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, the organization that put the brief together, has criticized the attorney general's "insertion" in Gardner's case, saying it undermines prosecutorial discretion. "Further, it reeks of a politically motivated attempt to seize power from the hands of a prosecutor who has rejected the continued criminalization of low-income people and people of color, and is focused on moving away from past failed 'tough on crime' practices and building healthier and safer communities with proven evidence-based policies," she said in a press release.

Krinsky tells Reason that the attorney general's presence both undermines "the obligation of local prosecutors" to fix wrongful convictions and the wishes of voters who elected Gardner to her position. Krinsky also says Johnson's case raises "the question of whether justice has an expiration date."

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  1. And these are the apparatchiks we are supposed to trust with telling businesses what to do, running health care, and everything else under the sun.

    I understand why Bernie, Lizzie, and even AOC are so blind — they think they have a good shot at running things. Why do so many voters vote for them, when they haven;t got a chance in hell of being in charge?

  2. So we all agree he’s innocent but he must be kept in jail because ‘procedures’ – system is broke

    1. Why can’t the legislature just pass a narrow alteration to the law that fixes this situation? How hard would that be?

      1. Had not thought of a specific, tailored law to his situation but yes, that would do the trick, wouldn’t it?

      2. Or the governor pardon him, stating in the pardon document that he is doing so because the evidence shows he is not guilty?

  3. As Reason previously reported, Johnson was convicted of the 1994 murder of Marcus Boyd. In order for Johnson to have actually killed Boyd, he would have needed to leave an apartment party, travel three miles to commit the murder, and return to the apartment on foot all within the span of five minutes.

    The actual killers not only confessed to the murder but absolved Johnson of involvement.

    Finally! A case where it’s not only absolutely clear that the accused likely didn’t commit the crime, but the entire counter case doesn’t have to be fabricated whole cloth from untested, 30-yr.-old trace DNA.

    I was beginning to have faith that really weren’t any innocent men sitting in prison waiting for our justice system to fail to exonerate them.

    1. Zuri almost had me convinced that everyone convicted was guilty.

    2. A lot of facts in the 67 page States Motion for New Trial… mentioned in Ms. Davis’s previous reporting on this subject. https://themip.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/2019-07-19-Motion-for-New-Trial.pdf

      Basically, dope dealer and otherwise ‘repeat offender’ gets wrongfully accused of killing his prior business associate and then minor business rival. Cops get other people involved to perjure themselves so that they can clear the case. The motion for a new trial has the closest thing to a decent Statement of Facts that I can find in any of the appellate opinions; most of which deal with procedural wrangling about if the trial court could grant a new trial, and whether appointing the state AG’s office sua sponte was kosher or not.

      The guy probably needs a pardon or commutation, and indeed, one of the lower appellate courts suggests just that.

  4. Does anyone know where Joseph Nickerson lives?

  5. >>Circuit Judge Elizabeth B. Hogan ruled against the motion just one month later, saying that it was 24 years too late.

    Justice System Stain Elizabeth B. Hogan.

  6. Where’s the Missouri Governor on all this? Seems like a easy case to fast-track to commutation.

    1. Missouri Governor probably didn’t want to go to bat for a dope dealer and repeat offender, who might ‘Willie Horton’ his re-election chances if the guy got let out of jail. I see his point.

      That said, commute his sentence already. It doesn’t look like he was guilty of this crime.

      1. “That said, commute his sentence already. It doesn’t look like he was guilty of this crime.”

        That’s mighty fuckin’ white of you. How about a pardon instead. You want to empathize with a politician over his unwillingness to do the right thing (justice) because of an election. Are you lost? Forty-five prosecutors are on his side. Think about that.

        Oh, because you got your jack boot cop thinking cap on, amirite? Because “…Mr. Johnson was himself a retail level illegal drug dealer, and classified as a repeat offender.” And everyone knows that drug dealers in disputes are ipso facto murderers waiting to happen.

        1. A pardon is declaration of guilt, not innocence. see Burdick v. United States.

  7. Don’t want to go to jail like a thug, don’t go apartment parties like a thug.

    1. How do them boots taste?

      But seriously, do partying college kids all deserve to go to jail? What a stupid comment.

      But it’s clear by your use of “thug” that it is the fact that he’s black that matters to you. Arrested for the crime of being bald and going to an apartment party.

      You’re a goddamn moron lmao.

      1. First, I’m sure R Mac was being sarcastic. And is probably closer to your point of view on this case than you think.

        Second, what mattered in this case was that Mr. Johnson was himself a retail level illegal drug dealer, and classified as a repeat offender. Further the police talked to witnesses who told them that Johnson was acquainted with the deceased, was in the same line of work, and also that he had a dispute with the victim. It’s not like the cops pulled this guy’s name out of a hat, or crashed college parties til they found a black guy to hang this case on.

        It looks like they suborned perjury, and that the prosecutors violated Brady. It also looks like Johnson didn’t commit this particular crime.

        Shrug. The Innocence Project actually finds a guy that didn’t do it, every once in a while.

        1. Yeah, you identify a possible motive sans opportunity but not an obstacle for someone like yourself. Things a little slow over at Policeone today?

          “It’s not like the cops pulled this guy’s name out of a hat, or crashed college parties til they found a black guy to hang this case on.”

          All the cops had to do was pull the right car over like with Hurricane Carter. Your apathy and reluctance in supporting vindication are shameful.

          1. I think it’s hilarious that you bring up ‘Hurricane’ Carter, given it’s more likely than not that he and his friend actually did those murders. Go read more about the case besides that execrable movie from Norman Jewison, or Bob Dylan’s song, and consider the sheer number of coincidences that would have had to happen for Carter to not have been involved. Same car as the killers, with same color, same color trim, same exotic taillights, out of state plates on the car, like the killers. All of this around 3 in the morning by the way, when the streets were just filled with traffic…
            Anyway, same caliber of ammunition (.32 and 12 gauge) the killers used rolling around inside the car. Witness description and sketch from same that resembled his accomplice, Artis. The same accomplice who was reported as wanting to get back at white people, as a white man had shot a relative of his earlier. No attempt to rob the all white victims.

            No wonder two separate trial juries convicted. Yes, there likely was a Brady violation in not disclosing the deal the prosecution cut with the two burglars who were the star witnesses.

            Carter was the Mumia Jamal of his day. And he had the great good fortune to be a violent shithead—with numerous violent crimes he was convicted of besides the murders at the Lafayette Bar and Grill—who was also an excellent athlete. And who became a lefty cause celebre because it allowed said lefties to decry racism. He found a federal judge who bought his story, and the DA didn’t feel like trying a 20 year old murder case for the third time.

            Returning to Johnson, a retail crack dealer, who was noted as a repeat offender. Yet neither the Innocence Project, nor the States Motion to overturn his conviction, cared to go into detail about said criminal history. Which doesn’t help me think it was the ‘non-violent’ drug criminal that Reason so loves to talk about, No, I’m not going to cry that a crack dealer in the early 1990s caught a case for something he didn’t do. As opposed to catching a case for all of the violent stuff attendant with being a retail crack dealer that he didn’t get caught for.

            As I wrote above, he deserves a pardon or commutation, as I think he wasn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have committed the murder of Marcus Boyd.

      2. But seriously, do partying college kids all deserve to go to jail? What a stupid comment.

        Yes. They are breaking the law. Next question.

        1. Three Felonies a Day

          Everyone is breaking some law. You may report to jail at your convenience.

          1. Was everybody’s sarcasm detector broken yesterday?

  8. If he didn’t do the crime, then he shouldn’t be doing the time.

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  11. Of course, in the minds of many judges, prosecutors, and conservatives, justice has an expiration date. Supreme Court [In]Justice Scalia often wrote about the “importance of finality” of judgments, an importance which, to him, surpassed concerns for justice. Scalia thought the “justice system” simply had to move on at some point, and end “endless appeals,” even if innocent persons had been convicted.

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