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Supreme Court to weigh Lamar Johnson case

The Court of Appeals Eastern District says it doesn’t have the power to let Lamar Johnson’s case be reopened, but perhaps the Missouri Supreme Court can.

The appeals court on Dec. 24 dismissed an appeal seeking a new trial for Johnson, who was convicted of murder in 1995. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner now contends that her office wrongfully convicted Johnson.

Rather than dismiss the case entirely, however, the court transferred the matter to the Supreme Court, saying the “issues in this case are undeniably important and include questions fundamental to our criminal justice system.”

“The resolution of these issues is of obvious import and general interest throughout this State,” Judges Robert M. Clayton III, Robert G. Dowd Jr. and Roy L. Richter wrote in their unsigned opinion. “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. Moreover, resolution of these issues may require reexamination of existing law.”

The ruling came less than two weeks after oral arguments in the procedurally tangled case. Gardner’s office had filed a motion for new trial in Johnson’s case, but a St. Louis judge said she didn’t have authority to entertain such a motion 24 years after the original verdict.

The Eastern District agreed with that assessment. Although the circuit attorney’s office had initiated the effort to reopen the case, the appeals court held that only the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which is defending Johnson’s original conviction, may represent the state of Missouri on appeal.

The Eastern District allowed the circuit attorney to remain in the case as an intervenor, which meant that her arguments were considered but her points on appeal were not. Johnson had filed a separate appeal, challenging the dismissal of the motion for new trial as well as the trial court’s appointment of the Attorney General to the case. But the appeals court said no statutory authority exists for appeals of those orders.

Johnson had pointed to both the court’s “inherent power to prevent a miscarriage of justice” as well as its ability to correct plain errors. But the court said there has to be a statutory right to bring the appeal in the first place.

“None of the arguments raised by Johnson or the Circuit Attorney overcome the fact that there is no statute authorizing an appeal by the defendant from the post-judgment orders in this criminal case,” the Eastern District wrote. “We are bound by the rules regarding the statutory right to appeal and cannot bend them for the convenience of expediently reaching the merits of the important issues presented in this appeal.”

Nonetheless, the court said the Supreme Court should get the final word on “whether and to what extent an elected prosecutor has a duty to correct wrongful convictions in her jurisdiction,” as well as whether a mechanism exists for such a duty to be carried out.

Johnson’s claim 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 that police allegedly pressured an eyewitness to implicate Johnson, as well as purported misconduct by a former prosecutor. Johnson has consistently maintained his innocence.

The case is State v. Johnson, ED108193.