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UPDATED: Supreme Court prepares to hear cases from a distance

The Missouri Supreme Court will return next week to a virtual courtroom.

The court is set to hear arguments April 14 in the case of Lamar Johnson, who has spent 25 years in prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit. The court will consider whether the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office has authority to seek a new trial for Johnson.

Lamar Johnson

Lamar Johnson (Photo courtesy Midwest Innocence Project)

It’s one of a handful of Missouri appellate cases to be argued remotely while the COVID-19 crisis prevents court hearings, including oral arguments, to be held in-person. While most attorneys have rescheduled previously scheduled arguments or asked the court to take the case on briefs, attorneys for Johnson chose to proceed with the closest thing to live arguments that they could — citing, among other things, Johnson’s potential for exposure to the disease while in prison.

“COVID-19 is a deadly and widespread virus which is sweeping the country, and Mr. Johnson, unable to self-isolate or access advanced medical care, is not immune,” Johnson’s attorney, Lindsay Runnels of Morgan Pilate in Kansas City, wrote to the court. She added that “an already urgent issue, the confinement of an innocent person, has become even more urgent in light of the present circumstances.”

The Supreme Court granted the request March 31 and announced procedures for the remote argument late on April 10.

“While specific plans remain subject to change, the Court expects to have the chief justice in the courtroom,
facing a screen through which the attorneys will participate remotely via videoconference, with the other six judges participating remotely via teleconference,” the court said in a news release. “Although no video of the argument will be available, the Court will provide audio of the arguments, both live and archived, as is its standard practice.”

Johnson was convicted in 1995 of murdering Marcus L. Boyd in a drug dispute, though he maintained his innocence. The St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit now says there is evidence that police pressured an eyewitness to implicate Johnson, as well as purported misconduct by a former prosecutor.

The circuit attorney 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 so long after the original verdict. Late last year, the Court of Appeals Eastern District said it didn’t have the power to let the case be reopened but transferred the case to the Supreme Court for final resolution.

The case has been set for arguments since Feb. 26, but on March 16 the Supreme Court announced a near-ban on in-person hearings to prevent spread of the virus. The statewide ban is set to last until at least May 1.

Four other cases were supposed to be heard April 14, but three of them — a childhood sexual abuse case against a clergyman, a personal injury verdict against the St. Louis Metro, and an attorney discipline matter — opted to move their arguments to dates in May. The fourth case, involving the statute of limitations in a suit against a hospital, was submitted on briefs.

The Supreme Court also plans to hear remote arguments in two cases scheduled for April 22. One is an appeal of a $113.7 million jury verdict for Missouri corrections officers who said they were denied compensation for pre- and post-shift duties. The other is a writ case that asks the court to decide if a party can seek a change of venue after successfully requesting a change of judge.

Although the Court of Appeals’ three districts are taking most cases on briefs, at least one prominent case is set to be heard. On April 24, the Eastern District is set to review a $4.69 billion jury verdict against Johnson & Johnson in a suit by a group of women who alleged they contracted ovarian cancer from talcum powder.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the case was to be heard April 7. The appellate court said the rescheduled argument will take place in person in the Old Post Office in St. Louis, but only two lawyers for each side will be allowed in the courtroom. The proceedings, however, will be live-streamed on the court’s Facebook page, and a recording will be posted on YouTube.

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This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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This post has been updated to reflect remote argument procedures announced late on April 10.

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