St. Louis City Circuit Court Judge David C. Mason set aside Lamar Johnson’s conviction on Feb. 14.
Lamar Johnson, 49, has served nearly 30 years of a life sentence in prison for the 1994 murder of Markus Boyd that Johnson claims he did not commit.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner first filed a motion for a new trial for Johnson in 2019. In a statement, Gardner said this was a hard-won case.
“This case says that in the state of Missouri, a person’s right to justice and liberty is valued more than the finality of an unjust conviction,” Gardner wrote. “My office fought long and hard, we took this case all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court.”
In March 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in the case that prosecutors didn’t have the right to ask for a new trial in cases of innocence or wrongful prosecution, though state legislators passed a law allowing them to do so in August of that year.
On Feb. 14, Mason said the statute “doesn’t give the greatest deal of guidance.”
“However, it does seem to let the court know that an important aspect of what we do in handling these cases is we have to look at the underlying trial and just how solid that trial was,” Mason said, “and then compare that to the subsequent evidence as to actual innocence.”
The opinion is the result of a five-day evidentiary hearing held last December. Mason determined that Johnson was denied his due process right to a fair trial.
“First, the police so directly interfered with the identification of Lamar Johnson by Greg Elking that the in-court identification was tainted by undue suggestion,” Mason wrote.
The state had withheld information that would have impeached the testimony of the key eyewitness, Greg Elking, whom police had coaxed into identifying Johnson after he was unable to choose him from a lineup at least four times. Elking and another witness — whose initial testimonies had helped to convict Johnson — had testified during the December hearing to support Johnson’s innocence.
“This combined testimony amounts to clear and convincing evidence that Lamar Johnson is innocent and did not commit the murder of Markus Boyd either individually or acting with another,” Mason wrote.
Mason also determined that in the initial trial, Johnson’s defense attorney could have used evidence to impeach another witness’ testimony from 20 to 30 feet away.
Before releasing the opinion, Mason said he spent time reviewing all the evidence and files himself in the weeks after the hearing.
“Sometimes a good solid trial might be hard to throw out even in the face of pretty good, even absolute innocence. You have to really balance the two,” Mason said.
Tricia Rojo Bushnell with the Midwest Innocence Project was on the team of attorneys that represented Johnson. The attorney team, which included the Midwest Innocence Project, Morgan Pilate and Lathrop GPM, issued a statement noting that the Missouri Attorney General’s Office had consistently blocked the hearing from occurring for four years.
“Yet, when this State’s highest law enforcement office could hide from a courtroom no more, it presented nothing to challenge the overwhelming body of evidence that the Circuit Attorney and Lamar Johnson had amassed,” the statement read.
In a statement, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office wrote that it had worked to defend the original verdict.
“Our office defended the rule of law and worked to uphold the original verdict that a jury of Johnson’s peers deemed to be appropriate based on the facts presented at trial,” the office stated. “The court has spoken, and no further action will be taken in this case.”
The case is Circuit Attorney, 22nd Judicial Circuit of Missouri, ex. rel. Lamar Johnson, 2222-CC09375.