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Judge in Lamar Johnson innocence case still reviewing evidence

Lamar Johnson wrongful conviction hearing, day 5
David Carson / Pool photo
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Circuit Court Judge David Mason asks questions of former St. Louis police homicide detective Joe Nickerson as he testifies on the stand during Lamar Johnson's wrongful conviction hearing in St. Louis on Friday, Dec. 16, 2022. Nickerson is the police homicide detective who handled Johnson's case in 1994.

St. Louis Judge David Mason is still reviewing Lamar Johnson’s wrongful conviction case and working toward a decision on whether or not to set aside his 1995 murder conviction, a court spokesman told The Independent Wednesday.

“There’s no date set yet to issue his ruling, but he is planning to set a hearing to provide and summarize his decision,” said Joel Currier, chief communications officer for the 22nd Circuit Court.

Mason will do his best to provide the public with a week’s advance notice of the hearing, Currier said.

Johnson’s case marks the first time a St. Louis judge has heard an innocence claim filed by the city’s prosecuting attorney.

During a weeklong hearing in December, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner argued the innocence of Johnson, who was convicted of murdering his friend Marcus Boyd in South St. Louis 28 years ago.

In August, Gardner filed a 59-page motion saying the two masked gunmen who killed Boyd that night were Phillip Campbell and James Howard — not Johnson. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has argued Johnson’s conviction should be upheld.

After listening to both arguments last month, Mason asked both Gardner and the attorney general’s office to prepare briefs with their fact analysis about “actual innocence evidence” in the case, as well as whether there were “constitutional deficiencies” that would have undermined the original verdict.

Gardner’s team submitted a brief on Dec. 23, and the attorney general’s office submitted its brief on Tuesday — the last day the judge allowed to submit the document.

“This is all new,” Mason said last month. “We want to look at this carefully. We want to get this right. This is not to be done cavalierly because there’s so much at stake. And then I’ll be able to make a ruling.”

Eric Schmitt has stepped down as attorney general on Tuesday after being sworn into office as a U.S. Senator. Missouri’s new attorney general is Andrew Bailey.

Throughout last month’s hearing, it became apparent that the only thing tying Johnson to the murder was eyewitness testimony from Greg Elking, Boyd’s former coworker.

Elking recanted his 1995 testimony on the stand on the hearing’s first day.

Later in the week, both the former prosecutor and police detective leading Johnson’s case testified they had no evidence connecting Johnson to the murder. The conviction rested solely on Elking picking Johnson out of a lineup based upon Elking’s memory of seeing the masked gunman’s eyes for a few seconds — and it took Elking four times of viewing the same lineup to do it.

“You had a witness in this case who told you…at best he could recognize maybe something about the eyes,” Mason said to former detective Joseph Nickerson last month. “Are you sure this isn’t a situation where you guys were in a little bit of a rush to make a conviction?”

The key witness in Johnson’s wrongful conviction hearing was Howard, who confessed to the murder and said he and Campbell only meant to rob Boyd but things got out of hand.

In the briefs, Mason requested the two offices address “how the prosecutors handled this case, particularly as it relates to information that would have undermined the credibility or weight of the evidence against Mr. Johnson at trial.”

Mason said he’s also concerned about whether information was withheld from Johnson’s public defender, David Bruns, as well as if Bruns “failed to effectively cross-examine to the point ineffective representation may very well have occurred.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration for the Missouri Independent

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