For more than a decade, Lamar Allen Johnson did what many inmates in state prison do.
He filed appeal after appeal in his murder case, representing himself, and each one was summarily denied by the various courts.
Johnson was convicted in 1995 of the murder of Marcus Boyd the previous year in St. Louis. Police said he was one of two men in ski masks to come across Boyd and another man, James Greg Elking, sitting on Boyd’s porch as Boyd sold drugs to Elking, a co-worker. Johnson was sentenced to life without parole.
He has consistently proclaimed his innocence.
Now he has an important new ally: St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner.
On Monday, Gardner’s office filed a motion for a new trial in Johnson’s case, claiming he is innocent, that the case was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct, perjury, hidden evidence and secret payments made by police to the key witness.
In the motion, attorney Jeffrey Estes of the circuit attorney’s office calls the conviction of Johnson a “perversion of justice.”
One of Johnson’s attorneys, Lindsay Runnels of the Morgan Pilate law firm in Kansas City, believes it is the first time in Missouri that a prosecutor’s conviction integrity unit has asked for a new trial alleging a defendant’s innocence.
The motion comes after an investigation by Gardner’s new Conviction Integrity Unit, which she established after receiving a federal grant in conjunction with the Midwest Innocence Project. Such units are popping up in cities across the country as a series of progressive prosecutors examine old cases with a new lens, applying DNA testing and a fresh set of eyes to the cause of justice. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell has also announced his intention to start such a unit.
“This is a good thing,” Runnels says. “It is no secret, in many communities, that there are innocent people in prison. This is a step in the right direction toward restoring faith in the criminal justice system.”
Runnels and attorney Tricia Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence Project brought Johnson’s case to Gardner’s office and asked her to investigate it. The investigation led to a 70-page report that outlines dozens of errors in the case, one of the most egregious being the identification of Johnson by Elking.
Elking says now, and has said for several years, that police coerced him into identifying Johnson as the killer, after he told them over and over that he couldn’t identify the killers because they were wearing ski masks.
The first time Elking sought to right that wrong was in 2003, when his troubled conscience caused him to write a letter to the Rev. Larry Rice.
“When they (police) talked to me they showed me some photos of suspects, but could not identify no one, because I did not know them or seen their faces,” Elking wrote Rice. The letter is reprinted in Gardner’s motion. “Then when they (police) showed me a line-up in City Jail, I still could not pick out the suspects. Then the detectives and me had a meeting with the (prosecutor) and convinced me, that they could help me financially and move me & my family out of our apartment & and relocate (us) in the County out of (harm’s) way. They also convinced me who they said they knew who murdered Marcus Boyd. ... I regret not coming to you or anyone else sooner. I don’t believe it was (the) right thing to do then & more so now.”
The report of the Conviction Integrity Unit accuses multiple police officers of lying, and the assistant circuit attorney who prosecuted the case of hiding exculpatory evidence. That attorney no longer works for Gardner’s office.
“This case is one that has all the red flags,” Runnels says.
Dwight Warren, who was the assistant circuit attorney who prosecuted the case, called Gardner’s motion “nonsense.” Warren stopped working for the circuit attorney’s office shortly after Gardner was elected.
In the motion seeking a new trial, the circuit attorney writes: “(Elking) was paid to identify Johnson, the State concealed that information, presented an identification that was false, and then lied to the jury that Elking had no reason to testify against Johnson.”
The challenge, Runnels says, is that this type of action is unprecedented in Missouri.
There is no specific authority for a prosecuting attorney to seek a new trial this long after a conviction. Gardner’s office is arguing that Missouri case law allows a judge to order a new trial in such “exceptional circumstances.”
For nearly 22 years, Ginny Schrappen has been awaiting Johnson’s freedom. At the request of a deacon at her Catholic parish, Schrappen, a retired teacher, began writing Johnson. Later, she started visiting him in prison, sometimes monthly.
“I never really doubted his innocence,” Schrappen says. “He’s a very gentle soul. He’s had 25 of his 45 years taken away from him.”
Johnson remains in jail, “hopeful,” Runnels says, that justice will finally be done in his case, nearly 25 years after he got arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He has been transferred from the state prison in Jefferson City to the City Justice Center in St. Louis in anticipation of a hearing on his case. He’s had visits from his elderly mother and wants to reunite with his two grown daughters soon.
“Lamar Johnson will eventually come home,” Runnels says. “Of that I have no doubt.”