ST. LOUIS — The effort to free Lamar Johnson, who has spent 26 years behind bars for a murder he says he didn’t commit, hit another roadblock Tuesday when the Missouri Supreme Court refused to grant a new trial.
The case “is not about whether Johnson is innocent or whether there exists a remedy for someone who is innocent and did not receive a constitutionally fair trial," the ruling stated. "This case presents only the issue of whether there is any authority to appeal the dismissal of a motion for a new trial filed decades after a criminal conviction became final.
“No such authority exists; therefore, this Court dismisses the appeal,” the ruling stated.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner sought a new trial for Johnson, who was convicted in the 1994 killing of 25-year-old Marcus Boyd in an alleged drug dispute in St. Louis. Gardner, a Democrat elected in 2016 and reelected last year, has said she is duty-bound to correct past wrongs, including what she believes was the wrongful conviction of Johnson.
Republican Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office argued successfully that Gardner lacked authority to seek a new trial so many years after the case was adjudicated.
Schmitt's spokesman, Chris Nuelle, said the ruling makes it clear "that the law does not allow the Circuit Attorney’s Office to file a motion for new trial almost 25 years too late. The Circuit Court brought our office in not to comment on innocence or guilt, but to ensure that the rule of law is upheld and the proper procedure is followed, and that’s exactly what we did.”
Gardner called the court's ruling “deeply disappointing.” She said the evidence is clear that Johnson has been in prison for more than 20 years for a crime he didn't commit.
“We will continue to seek justice in this case, and will use every tool within the power of the Office of the Circuit Attorney to ensure the pursuit of justice for individuals where there is evidence of a wrongful conviction,” she said in a statement. “What is at stake is equal justice under the law, and public trust in the integrity of the entire criminal justice system.”
Lindsay Runnels, an attorney for Johnson, said in a statement that the defense will file a habeas corpus writ, which gives suspects the chance to ask a judge to set them free.
She noted that “not a single judge” has denied Johnson's innocence and said the 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.”
“Lamar Johnson may have said it best,” Runnels said. "Today, when he learned that he was denied justice for the ninth time (he said): ‘It is sad that rules and technicalities matter more than someone’s innocence.’”
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 has long proclaimed his innocence. Gardner agreed with his alibi that 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 asked for a new trial in July 2019 after investigating Johnson’s case in collaboration with his lawyers at the Midwest Innocence Project. Gardner said there was 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.
A circuit judge rejected Gardner’s motion for a new trial, and an appeals court ruled in December 2019 that the state Supreme Court should decide the case.