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Judge frees Lamar Johnson after 28 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit

Lamar Johnson celebrates being released from custody
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Lamar Johnson celebrates being released from custody on Tuesday at the Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.

Updated at 9:55 p.m. Feb. 14 with an interview with Johnson at a dinner celebrating his freedom

A St. Louis judge ruled Tuesday that Lamar Johnson should be released from prison after he spent 28 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit.

Circuit Judge David Mason found that two people, Greg Elking and James Howard, provided credible testimony that absolved Johnson in the slaying of Marcus Boyd.

"This combined testimony amounts to clear and convincing evidence that Lamar Johnson is innocent and did not commit the murder of Marcus Boyd either individually or acting with another,” Mason wrote.

After Mason announced his decision, Johnson’s supporters in the courtroom burst into joyous cheers and applause. He later walked out of the Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis a free man.

“I want to thank, first off, people who had information about the case and came forward with the truth,” Johnson said to a crowd of reporters and supporters. “All of the people who came out and supported me — this is overwhelming. I just thank everybody. Just thank you.”

Johnson contended for years he did not kill Marcus Boyd on his porch in 1994.

But Johnson was found guilty along with Phillip Campbell of murdering Boyd. Much of the conviction revolved around the account of an eyewitness who was later found to have been compensated and ultimately recanted his testimony that Johnson was one of the killers.

A hearing on the case in December also featured dramatic testimony from Howard, who said on the witness stand that he and Campbell killed Boyd during a robbery attempt.

Judge vacates Lamar Johnson's murdrer conviction
Christian Gooden
Pool Photo
Kim Gardner, St. Louis circuit attorney, listens to a hearing in which St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason vacated Lamar Johnson's murder conviction on Tuesday at the Carnahan Courthouse in St. Louis.

The 2021 law

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit first highlighted Johnson’s case as a wrongful conviction in 2019. But efforts to free Johnson were stymied after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2021 she didn’t have the authority to try to vacate his sentence.

“The criminal justice system is premised on the idea that innocent people shouldn't be convicted,” said Washington University Law School professor Peter Joy. “And if they're convicted, they should be set free. And in Missouri, unfortunately, the way the courts interpreted the existing laws on the books was they basically said, ‘Even if there's actual innocence proven on a person, unless the person was convicted and given the death penalty, there wasn't any way of relief.’”

Eventually, the Missouri General Assembly passed legislation that gave prosecutors like Gardner the pathway to set aside potential wrongful convictions. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker was able to use that law to free Kevin Strickland in 2021.

Speaking to reporters after Mason’s decision, Gardner said, “This is an amazing day.”

“We showed that the City of St. Louis and the State of Missouri is about justice — and not defending the finality of a conviction,” Gardner said.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Erika Barrow, Lamar Johnson’s former girlfriend Jayla Collins, and Johnson’s daughter Kierra Barrow wait for Johnson’s release on Tuesday outside of the St. Louis City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis.

But both Gardner and Baker had opposition from then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office. In Johnson’s case, several assistant attorneys general argued that the people vouching for Johnson’s innocence had credibility issues or had made contradictory statements over the years.

In a statement, Attorney General Andrew Bailey’s office said it was “committed to enforcing the laws as written.”

“Our office defended the rule of law and worked to uphold the original verdict that a jury of Johnson’s peers deemed to be appropriate based on the facts presented at trial,” the statement said. “The court has spoken, and no further action will be taken in this case.”

Some legal observers felt the case was a critical test of whether the 2021 law was meaningful. And others like former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Michael Wolff said Schmitt’s office was engaging in misguided tactics.

“Doing justice is the value, not making sure that a wrong judgment stays in place,” Wolff said.

Baker said it makes sense for the attorney general’s office to be involved in these types of cases — especially if a prosecutor thinks someone is wrongfully convicted but it turns out they were actually guilty.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Attorney Lindsay Runnels walks alongside Lamar Johnson after he was released Tuesday outside Maggie O’Brien's in Downtown West.

First hours of freedom

Johnson smiled and laughed excitedly while talking to Lindsay Runnels, one of his attorneys, before a celebratory dinner at Maggie O’Brien’s on Tuesday evening. He motioned to a red-and-green trolley that whisks hockey fans to and from the Enterprise Center and a Ferris wheel that towers over Union Station.

“This is all so new,” Johnson said. “Everything’s so different.”

Johnson said he’s ready to tackle the adjustment into today’s society after being behind bars for nearly three decades.

“I thought I would have some time to rest, but it kind of feels like I'm ready to hit the ground running,” he said while looking around downtown St. Louis. “I want to work to try to rebuild my life.”

Johnson attributed a few factors with fueling his drive to fight — education in the legal system, his faith and working out. Now, he said, he’s hoping his case serves as an inspiration for others who may also be wrongfully convicted.

“I hope I can be an inspiration and that they will continue to fight — truth finds a way,” he said. "I think there's a purpose in pain. To some degree, I have an obligation to try to help others and help them get through what they're going through."

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Lamar Johnson after being released from prison on Tuesday outside Maggie O’Brien's in Downtown West. “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings, and that's the way I've got to look at life,” he said. “I’m happy to have my life back, and I'm going to try to make the best of it.”

Calls for restitution

Several House Democrats said Johnson’s case should compel the state legislature to provide restitution for people whose convictions are overturned.

“Lamar Johnson spent 28 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, and our judicial system finally honored that truth today as Judge David Mason overturned his conviction,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “While Mr. Johnson celebrates alongside his family, his community and the thousands of people who have supported him along his journey, the state has an obligation to make him as whole as it can after it robbed him of nearly three decades of his life.”

State Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-St. Louis, noted that she had visited Johnson in a Jefferson City prison and was “overjoyed” to see him set free.

“The overturning of his conviction illustrates how a system can own up to its mistake,” Collins said. “However, to truly right the wrong that has been done to Mr. Johnson, this same system must take full accountability for its actions as he deserves restitution for nearly three decades of wrongful imprisonment that took away valuable time spent with his family and community."

State Rep. LaKeySha Bosley said Johnson “spent 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit because our justice system failed him.”

“Mr. Johnson deserves more than just a pat on the back or money in his pocket, he deserves time,” said Bosley, D-St. Louis. “But because we cannot give him that, we can give him our best by providing adequate financial assistance, access to further education, housing, and other things the state effectively took from him. I urge the governor to work with members of the General Assembly to pass legislation that would offer restitution to Lamar Johnson, Kevin Strickland, and the other Missourians like them who have had their convictions overturned — or may have them overturned in the future.

“To Mr. Johnson, I am sorry our system took so much from you. As an innocent man, you deserved better from Missouri,” she added.

Despite the calls for restitution, Johnson said he wasn’t expecting anything from the state.

"Unfortunately, Missouri has spent thousands of dollars fighting innocence cases that come forward and it won't give a dime to anybody who was wrongfully incarcerated," he said. “That’s just the way Missouri chooses to handle that.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Alana McMullin, an attorney with Lathrop GPM, talks with Lamar Johnson after he was released from prison on Tuesday during a celebratory dinner at Maggie O’Brien's in Downtown West.

Looking to the future

Johnson sat alongside his legal team, exchanging smiles and laughs as a smorgasbord of appetizers were brought by servers — wings, fries, salads, onion rings and more.

He settled on his first meal after all that time eating prison food — chicken strips and fries. There are a few things Johnson said he’s looking forward to, aside from ordering dinner at a restaurant, but primarily he wants to experience day-to-day life as a free man.

“I want to stand in line and be frustrated because it’s not going fast enough,” he said. “I mean, all the things a lot of people may overlook and may be annoyed by, I want to experience.”

But there are a few significant events Johnson is looking forward to, like boarding a plane to see the ocean and walking his daughter Kierra down the aisle in April.

“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings, and that's the way I've got to look at life,” he said. “I’m happy to have my life back, and I'm going to try to make the best of it.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Brian Munoz is a photojournalist and multimedia reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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