Missouri Black man walks free after 28 years of wrongful conviction
A Black man in Missouri had to spend three decades in prison for a crime he didn't commit.
A Missouri judge overturned on Tuesday the conviction of a man who had served nearly 28 years of a life sentence for a murder he has always said he did not commit.
When Judge David Mason issued his ruling, Lamar Johnson, 50, closed his eyes and shook his head slightly as a member of his legal team patted him on the back. Mason explained that there had to be "reliable evidence of actual innocence - evidence so reliable that it actually passes the standard of clear and convincing" in order for him to make his decision.
He walked free after he was processed out of the courthouse about two hours after the ruling and thanked everyone who worked on his case. “This is unbelievable,” said Johnson to reporters and didn’t take any more questions.
A St. Louis attorney, Kim Gardner, who filed a motion seeking Johnson's release in August after an investigation her office conducted with the help of the Innocence Project convinced her he was telling the truth, applauded the ruling. “Lamar Johnson. Thank you. You’re free,” she said before the gathered press.
Republican efforts to keep Johnson in jail
The state attorney general's office, which is controlled by Republicans, fought hard to keep Johnson in jail. In an email, Madeline Sieren, a spokesperson for the office, stated that the office will take no further action in the case. She defended the office's efforts to re-arrest Johnson.
“As he stated when he was sworn in, attorney general [Andrew] Bailey is committed to enforcing the laws as written,” Sieren wrote. “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.”
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Johnson's attorneys blasted the state attorney general's office after the hearing, saying it "never stopped claiming Lamar was guilty and was comfortable to have him languish and die in prison."
“Yet, when this state’s highest law enforcement officials 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,” they said in a statement.
What was Johnson falsely convicted of?
In October 1994, Johnson was convicted of killing Marcus Boyd. Boyd was shot dead on his front porch by two masked men. The killing was blamed on a drug money dispute, according to police and prosecutors. Johnson maintained his innocence from the beginning, and his alibi was that he was miles away with his girlfriend at the time of the crime.
A second suspect, Phil Campbell, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in exchange for a seven-year prison term, which is nowhere near Johnson's sentence for life.
#Racism isn't dead.— Al Mayadeen English (@MayadeenEnglish) September 29, 2022
Statistics show that black Americans are more likely to be falsely convicted 7 times more than white #Americans before being exonerated. pic.twitter.com/YJ8g3ANy6T
During a December hearing, he testified that he was with his girlfriend on the night of the crime, except for a few minutes when he stepped outside a friend's home to sell drugs on a corner several blocks away from where the victim was killed.
Erika Barrow, Johnson's girlfriend at the time, testified that she was with Johnson the entire night, except for about a five-minute period when he left to make the drug sale. She claimed that the distance between the friend's house and Boyd's house was too great for Johnson to get there and back in five minutes.
The case for Johnson's release revolved around a key witness who recanted his testimony and a prison inmate who admitted it was he, not Johnson, who participated in the murder.
Who is James Howard?
James Howard, 46, is serving a life sentence for murder and other crimes committed three years after Boyd's death. During the hearing, he testified that he and Campbell decided to rob Boyd because he owed one of their friends money from the sale of drugs. He also stated that Johnson was not present.
He testified that he shot Boyd in the back of the head and neck and that Campbell shot Boyd in the side. Years ago, Howard and Campbell signed affidavits admitting to the crime, saying Johnson didn't play a role. Campbell has since died.
In December, James Gregory Elking testified that he was on the front porch with Boyd, attempting to buy drugs, when two gunmen wearing black ski masks approached the house and began the attack. Elking, who was later imprisoned for several years for bank robbery, initially told police he couldn't identify the gunmen.
He agreed to go see the lineup anyway. Elking testified that when he was unable to identify anyone from the lineup as a shooter, detective Joseph Nickerson told him, "I know you know who it is" and urged him to "help get these guys off the street."
#AnthonyBroadwater was found guilty of raping #AliceSebold in 1982. He served almost 16 years in jail and was on the sex offenders' register for 23 years. He was exonerated by a #NewYork court on November 22 when it was proven that he had been innocent all along. pic.twitter.com/NBsdsAkKPN— Al Mayadeen English (@MayadeenEnglish) December 4, 2021
Elking identified Johnson as one of the shooters after feeling "bullied" and "pressured". Gardner's office also stated that Elking was compensated at least $4,000 for agreeing to testify.
“It’s been haunting me,” he said of his role in sending Johnson to prison.
The Missouri Supreme Court denied Johnson's request for a new trial in March 2021, after then-attorney general Eric Schmitt's office successfully argued that Gardner lacked the authority to seek one so many years after the case was decided.
The case influenced a new state law making it easier for defendants to obtain new hearings when there is new evidence of a wrongful conviction. Last year, another long-term inmate, Kevin Strickland, was released under this law. He had served more than 40 years in prison for a triple homicide in Kansas City.