In one sentence, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George Draper captured the frustration defined by the case of Lamar Johnson.
“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 last week, in a concurring opinion in which the court determined that the mechanism sought by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner to free Johnson from prison was the wrong one.
Gardner believes Johnson is innocent of the 1995 murder conviction that landed him in prison. She also believes that prosecutors have a duty to try to overturn such convictions when new evidence calls into question the integrity of cases brought by their office.
The Missouri Supreme Court says there is no mechanism in existing law that allows a prosecutor to do that, at least in a case as old as Johnson’s. So, Johnson waits in prison, while his defense attorneys from the Midwest Innocence Project seek another avenue to set him free.
“Not a single Judge denied Lamar Johnson’s innocence. Indeed, the very prosecutor’s office that convicted Lamar Johnson concluded that he is innocent,” said Kansas City attorneys Lindsay Runnels and Tricia Rojo Bushnell after the court denied Gardner’s appeal of a St. Louis Circuit Court judge’s ruling that she didn’t have the right to file a motion for a new trial in Johnson’s case. “Instead, today’s decision highlights the remarkable gaps in the criminal legal system that allow an innocent person to languish in prison year after year even when the evidence of his innocence is clear. This is not justice and we hope the legislature hears the mandate issued to it by the court. We hope and expect the legislature will provide leadership.”
Three of the Supreme Court judges — Draper, Laura Denvir Stith and Patricia Breckenridge — signed on to concurring opinions that issued challenges to people who could fix this injustice. First, Draper wrote, the Missouri Legislature has the power to give Gardner and other prosecutors the avenue to seek new trials in cases in which they find injustice. Several states in which prosecutors have created Conviction Integrity Units have passed laws that give those prosecutors a specific path to seek new trials, or dismiss convictions, in cases in which new evidence casts doubt on previous trials, or proves actual innocence.
Gardner, and her counterpart in St. Louis County, Wesley Bell, have both started such units to investigate old cases in which innocent men or women were sent to prison, often because of faulty police work or prosecutorial misconduct. The Legislature must find an avenue for them to seek justice, Bell said in a statement after the Johnson decision was published.
“A prosecutor who has 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,” Bell said. “That is wrong, and we should right it.”
The second challenge issued by the Supreme Court, in a concurring opinion written by Stith, was to Attorney General Eric Schmitt. Stith wrote that the proper avenue for Johnson’s attorneys to seek his release now is a habeas corpus writ, which has been used by attorneys of other wrongfully convicted defendants to seek freedom in the past several years in Missouri.
Donald “Doc” Nash. Jonathan Irons. David Robinson. Joshua Kezer. George Allen. Lawrence Callanan. Those are just a few of the men the Missouri Supreme Court has set free in habeas cases in recent years. Callanan’s case is particularly interesting in this context because to speed Callanan’s release, Bell supported Callanan’s habeas petition, as Stith is now challenging Schmitt to do in Johnson’s case.
But Schmitt’s office, which has fought Johnson’s release, always opposes such filings, dragging them out for years. It’s time that the attorney general reconsider what his role is as a “minister of justice,” Stith wrote.
“In suggesting it is his duty, and that of the circuit attorney, as representatives of the State, to oppose a request for habeas or similar relief, the attorney general misunderstands the full extent of the prosecution’s role in the justice system,” Stith writes. “This Court has similarly recognized that ‘the state attorney’s role is to see that justice is done—not necessarily to obtain or to sustain a 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.”
It’s a bit of hopeful thinking on Stith’s part, perhaps, in that Schmitt, who has backed some criminal justice reform efforts, has always opposed habeas petitions no matter how damning the evidence in the case may be. But in a ruling that otherwise wreaks of injustice, as Johnson remains behind bars, the dual challenges offered by Stith and Draper at least offer a path forward for a justice system in need of a fix.
1/ Today's Missouri Supreme Court ruling is deeply disappointing. Our Conviction Integrity Unit determined there is clear evidence to suggest that Lamar Johnson has wrongly sat in prison for over 20 years, convicted of a crime he did not commit. (Full statement below) pic.twitter.com/ZWG9W5T6MG— Circuit Attorney (@stlcao) March 2, 2021