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Lamar Johnson’s decades-old wrongful conviction case on potential path to trial

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JEFFERSON CITY — Lamar Johnson, a St. Louis man imprisoned for a 1994 murder in the Dutchtown neighborhood, may be headed back to trial this year.

Johnson, 47, has been behind bars for more than a quarter century but maintains he did not kill 25-year-old Marcus Boyd on the front porch of a home in Dutchtown. His efforts to prove his innocence and be released have been thwarted through numerous appeals.

Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green on Monday evaluated the state’s motion for a summary judgment, a response to Johnson’s petition to overturn his conviction, which would effectively deny Johnson this latest bid for freedom. Though Green did not issue a ruling, he said he was “unlikely” to grant the state’s motion, discussing the possible length of a trial as well as potential dates this summer.

Johnson’s case caught the attention of the Midwest Innocence Project, which is currently involved in Johnson’s legal representation. In 2019, it was brought to St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner.

Gardner’s subsequent yearlong inquiry with her newly formed Conviction Integrity Unit uncovered, she wrote in court filings, “evidence of government misconduct, perjured testimony, concealed exculpatory and impeachment evidence that is clearly material, and evidence of innocence.”

Gardner previously sought a new trial for Johnson in collaboration with his lawyers at the Midwest Innocence Project, but the trial was denied based on limitations to a prosecutor’s power to overturn a conviction. Since that attempt, the Legislature passed a law giving prosecuting attorneys in the jurisdiction of the original crime the power to file a “motion to vacate” wrongful convictions. Last year, Kevin Strickland, who spent 43 years in prison, was the first person to use this law to seek a new evidentiary hearing and was released.

Johnson’s latest bid is taking another route: The motions filed by his lawyers will not be assessed by the prosecuting attorney in St. Louis, where the crime occurred, but in Cole County where Johnson is incarcerated.

In court filings, Johnson’s attorneys told Judge Green that the case “is about an innocent man, a grossly unfair trial and the burial of exculpatory evidence that would have destroyed the State’s case.”

“Lamar Johnson did not kill Marcus Boyd and had nothing to do with his death. In the quarter-century since Johnson was wrongly convicted, the evidence of his innocence has steadily mounted while the evidence of guilt has totally collapsed,” the filing notes.

“And yet today he will serve his 9,744th day in a Missouri prison. Johnson now comes to this Court, with evidence in hand, asking for an end to this injustice,” the attorneys add.

Johnson received a life sentence in 1995. The other suspect, Phil Campbell, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in 1996 in exchange for a seven-year prison term.

The only eyewitness, who said Johnson shot Boyd, recanted his identification in 2003. The witness’ identification was tainted by allegations of police coercion, and Gardner’s investigation uncovered undisclosed payments totaling over $4,000 and favors to the witness by police.

Questions have also been raised about the testimony of a jailhouse informant, who wrote a letter to assistant prosecutor Dwight Warren directing racially based animus at Johnson. This evidence was also not disclosed.

The attorneys said no physical evidence connected Johnson to the crime and he was with three other people more than 3 miles away when Boyd was shot on a poorly lit porch by two men wearing black masks.

Johnson did not testify at his 1995 trial. Johnson’s then-girlfriend testified he spent the evening with her and friends at a home at 3907 Lafayette Avenue — about 3 miles from the scene of the homicide at 3910 Louisiana Avenue. She said Johnson left the house on Lafayette around 9 p.m. for about five minutes to meet someone at a nearby liquor store. She acknowledged on cross-examination he could have been gone longer but no more than 10 minutes.

“The killers, Phillip Campbell and James Howard, have both credibly confessed — repeatedly — over the course of more than two decades. Their confessions are supported by the physical evidence and by other witnesses at the scene,” the filing added.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office urged Green to deny Johnson’s bid for freedom, saying evidence shows Johnson’s involvement in the murder was possible.

“Johnson’s alibi was far from rock-solid,” Assistant Attorney General Patrick Logan wrote in a lengthy brief.

Johnson’s push for freedom has generated widespread attention, with nearly 200 prosecutors, legal scholars and retired judges across Missouri and the nation filing court briefs in his previous appeals and weighing in on the limits of prosecutorial power to overturn convictions.

Activists have also latched onto the case, pushing for the firing of the original investigation’s lead detective Joseph Nickerson.

Johnson has lost state and federal appeals three times, but the trajectory of this latest bid may be set to go farther than prior attempts.

Green is set to rule on the motions in late February, with the likely trial to be set further into the year.

Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

Originally posted at 5 p.m. Monday, Jan. 10.

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