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Court’s jurisdiction at heart of debate in Lamar Johnson case

The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District is considering whether it has jurisdiction to review an effort to reopen Lamar Johnson’s 1995 murder conviction.

Johnson was convicted in 1995 of killing Marcus Boyd in a drug-related dispute. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, whose office now contends he was wrongfully convicted, sought a new trial for Johnson.

Lamar Johnson

Lamar Johnson (Photo courtesy Midwest Innocence Project)

St. Louis Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan, however, ruled in August that she lacks authority to entertain such a motion 24 years after the original verdict was rendered.

Gardner appealed that ruling on behalf of the state to the Eastern District. But the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which is defending Johnson’s original conviction, also said it represents the state of Missouri — and that under state law, it is the only entity that can do so.

In November, Eastern District Chief Judge Colleen Dolan crafted a solution that allowed both agencies to remain in the case by designating the circuit attorney as an intervenor.

Lawyers representing the state of Missouri, Johnson and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner presented arguments Dec. 11 before a panel of three Eastern District judges.

Lindsay Runnels, an attorney for Johnson, and Gardner’s attorney, Daniel Scott Harawa, both argued that Gardner has a duty to correct a wrongful conviction prosecuted by her office.

“There’s nothing in the law that prevents a circuit attorney to file a motion for a new trial,” said Harawa, director of the Appellate Clinic at Washington University School of Law. He argued that the 15-day appeal deadline for defendants can be waived by the prosecutor.

Added Runnels:  “This court has jurisdiction to review the circuit court’s decision.”

That’s not so, Assistant Attorney General Shaun Mackelprang argued. The matter at hand, he said, is that a dismissal or denial of a post-trial motion does not create a new judgment; therefore an appellate jurisdiction is not established.

“The circuit court exhausts its jurisdiction in a criminal case once it enters a sentence,” Mackelprang said, adding the court then doesn’t have the power to make new judgments.

In his rebuttal, Harawa said the Missouri Attorney General is affirming that circuit attorneys have no means to correct a wrongful conviction.

“The role (of a prosecutor) is to see if justice was done, not necessarily to maintain convictions,” Harawa said.

The case stems from the findings of the circuit attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit, a program Gardner began shortly after she took office in 2017. The unit’s report on Johnson found evidence of his actual innocence, including that police allegedly pressured an eyewitness to implicate Johnson and purported misconduct by a former prosecutor. Johnson has consistently maintained his innocence.

The judges gave no indication when they would rule on the matter.

The case is State v. Johnson, ED108193.

RELATED: Prosecutors, legal scholars back appeal in murder case

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