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Supreme Court leaves innocence claim at square one

Scott Lauck//March 5, 2021

Supreme Court leaves innocence claim at square one

Scott Lauck//March 5, 2021

Nearly two years after concluding that it wrongfully convicted Lamar Johnson a quarter-century ago, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office has no clear way to do anything about it.

The Missouri Supreme Court on March 2 became the third court to turn away a case seeking a new trial for Johnson. A St. Louis circuit judge said she had no authority to hear the motion so long after the original verdict; the Supreme Court, building on an earlier opinion by the Court of Appeals Eastern District, said it had no authority to hear an appeal of that denied motion.

Three judges suggested alternative avenues to pursue Lamar Johnson’s claim of innocence, including that Johnson pursue a writ of habeas corpus. The Midwest Innocence Project, which represents Johnson, vowed to do just that. But in a statement, the group said that “by declining to give prosecutors a mechanism to fulfill their sacred duty to correct an injustice, the Supreme Court’s decision puts the burden of correcting a wrongful conviction squarely on the shoulders of the wrongfully convicted themselves.”

Daniel S. Harawa, director of the appellate clinic at Washington University School of Law, argued on behalf of the circuit attorney. In an interview, he said the dismissal of the case “feels circularly frustrating.” 

“I don’t think that answers the crux of the question,” Harawa said. “Yes, habeas is an option, but what does a prosecutor do when they realize their office messed up and wrongfully convicted somebody? That there is no clear answer to that yet in Missouri is unfortunate and problematic.”

Lamar Johnson was convicted in 1995 for the murder of Marcus L. Boyd in what witnesses described as a drug dispute. Johnson maintains his innocence, and in 2019 Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit issued a report that found evidence that police pressured an eyewitness to implicate Johnson, as well as purported misconduct by a former prosecutor. 

Gardner filed a motion for a new trial in Johnson’s case — a motion that, under court rules, is to be filed no more than 15 days after the verdict. St. Louis Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan said she couldn’t hear the motion. On appeal, the Eastern District tentatively agreed with that decision but transferred the case to the Supreme Court for final resolution. 

The high court, after hearing oral arguments more than 10 months ago, agreed with the lower courts and adopted much of the language of the Eastern District’s opinion as its own.

Although Johnson and Gardner had urged the court to address the case on the merits, Judge Zel M. Fischer wrote that those arguments “are wholly distinct from the statutory right to bring the appeal in the first place and have no place when this Court lacks the authority to do anything but dismiss the appeal.”

“In conclusion, this case is not about whether Johnson is innocent or whether there exists a remedy for someone who is innocent and did not receive a constitutionally fair trial,” Fischer wrote. “This case presents only the issue of whether there is any authority to appeal the dismissal of a motion for a new trial filed decades after a criminal conviction became final. No such authority exists; therefore, this Court dismisses the appeal.”

In a statement, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell — whose office also has a unit that investigates past convictions — said prosecutors with evidence of a defendant’s innocence “cannot and should not stand idly by while that defendant remains in prison.”

“Under Missouri law right now, there is nothing that prosecutor can do to bring that evidence before a court. That is wrong, and we should right it,” Bell wrote.

State lawmakers are nearly halfway through the legislative session. No filed bills appear to create a way for prosecutors to seek to undo wrongful convictions. Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-St. Louis, proposed legislation that would require the immediate release of anyone determined to be actually innocent, but the bill has yet to be referred to a committee.

Chief Justice George W. Draper III and Judge Laura Denvir Stith, joined by Judge Patricia Breckenridge, agreed with the dismissal of the case but wrote separately to suggest alternative procedures.

Draper argued that the circuit attorney’s office could invoke a court rule that allows relief from a final judgment when “it is no longer equitable that the judgment remain in force.” He noted, however, that his interpretation “is not binding on this Court without further litigation” and urged the legislature to address the issue. 

“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,” Draper wrote.

That procedural approach, however, could prove as fruitless as the one Gardner already tried. In a footnote, Fischer’s majority opinion disagreed with Draper’s argument, saying the rule in question was meant for civil cases and that using it in a criminal matter “would not be proper.”

Stith agreed with Draper but wrote in a separate opinion that Johnson could file a habeas writ. She also chided the state’s prior opposition to Johnson’s attempt to raise the newly discovered evidence of innocence, saying “the attorney general misunderstands the full extent of the prosecution’s role in the justice system” and that he must see that justice is done rather than defend an unjust conviction.

“This Court anticipates and expects the attorney general will apply these principles when called upon to consider whether to oppose a petition for writ of habeas corpus or other pleading filed by Mr. Johnson or others,” Stith wrote.

Earlier in the case, Gardner had fought with the attorney general’s office regarding its involvement in the case. Although the circuit attorney’s office initiated the case, the attorney general’s office successfully argued that only it could represent the interests of the state. Gardner’s office remained in the case as an intervenor.

“Today, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed what the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District ruled in 2019, that the law does not allow the Circuit Attorney’s Office to file a motion for a new trial almost 25 years too late,” Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Attorney General Eric Schmitt, said in a statement. “The Circuit Court brought our office in not to comment on innocence or guilt, but to ensure that the rule of law is upheld and the proper procedure is followed, and that’s exactly what we did.”

In a statement, Gardner’s office called the ruling “deeply disappointing.”

“This case is about the duty of a prosecutor to be a true minister of justice. In fact, the prosecutor’s duty to pursue justice does not stop when a conviction is secured,” the statement read. “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. What is at stake is equal justice under the law, and public trust in the integrity of the entire criminal justice system.”

The case is State v. Johnson, SC98303. 


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