ST. LOUIS — St. Louis' top prosecutor on Wednesday filed a motion asking a judge to vacate the conviction that sent a man to prison nearly 30 years ago for a murder he has long claimed he didn't commit.
Lamar Johnson was convicted in the 1994 killing of 25-year-old Marcus Boyd in an alleged drug dispute. Johnson's claims of innocence and other new evidence in recent years convinced St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner that he was wrongfully convicted.
In fact, his case was compelling enough to spur a new Missouri law that makes it easier for prosecutors to get new hearings in cases like Johnson's.
Citing the new law, Gardner's office filed a motion to vacate or set aside the judgment in Johnson's case. The office's statement released Wednesday evening did not provide any other details.
“We are hopeful that the court will hear our motion and correct this manifest injustice on behalf of Mr. Johnson to strengthen the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Gardner's office said in the statement.
It's not the first time that Gardner, a Democrat, has sought to clear Johnson. In 2019, she asked for a new trial in a case that ended up before the Missouri Supreme Court. Republican Attorney General Eric Schmitt's office argued that Gardner lacked authority to make the request so many years after the case was adjudicated. The March 2021 ruling sided with Schmitt.
Lindsay Runnels, an attorney for Johnson, at the time called it “sad that rules and technicalities matter more than someone’s innocence.”
Wednesday, she spoke with 5 On Your Side.
"All of the evidence against Mr. Johnson has fallen away in the years and nothing credit to support the verdict remains," Runnels said.
A new state law effective August 2021 gave prosecutors the authority to seek a hearing if they have new evidence of a wrongful conviction. State Sen. John Rizzo, a Kansas City Democrat, said the Johnson case pushed him and other lawmakers to write the law with input from prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers and representatives from groups that work to free prisoners.
Johnson was convicted of killing Boyd over a $40 drug debt and received a life sentence while another suspect, Phil Campbell, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in exchange for a seven-year prison term.
Johnson claimed he was with his girlfriend miles away when Boyd was killed. Meanwhile, years after the killing, the state’s only witness recanted his identification of Johnson and Campbell as the shooters. Two other men have confessed to Boyd’s killing and said Johnson was not involved.
Gardner launched an investigation in collaboration with lawyers at the Midwest Innocence Project. She said the investigation found misconduct by one of her office’s former prosecutors, that secret payments were made to the witness, that police reports were falsified and testimony perjured.
The former prosecutor and the detective who investigated the case rejected Gardner’s allegations.
"When you know your client is innocent, there's no walking away from that. You do whatever you can do, including lose and lose and lose until you get heard. All Lamar Johnson needs is a hearing and it looks like he's going to get one finally," Runnells said.
"More important to me than anything is just being able to bond and be with my family again. So my mother can rest knowing that I didn't have to spend the rest of my life in prison for something I didn't do," Johnson told NBC Nightly News in 2021.
The new law spurred by Johnson's case freed another longtime inmate last year.
Kevin Strickland of Kansas City, Missouri, was freed from prison at age 62 in November after spending more than 40 years behind bars for a triple murder. He maintained that he wasn’t he wasn’t at the crime scene, and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced said her review convinced her that Strickland was telling the truth.
After the Missouri Supreme Court in June 2021 declined to hear Strickland’s petition for release, Peters Baker used the new state law to seek a hearing. In that hearing, a judge ordered Strickland freed.