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Lamar Johnson’s Supporters Hope For A Reprieve After His 24 Years In Prison

From left, Tricia Bushnell, Mike Jarvis and Ginny Schrappen joined Thursday's program.
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio

Lamar Johnson has been in prison for 24 years. A St. Louis jury found him guilty of murder in 1995 – and he’s been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole ever since. 

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner now says prosecutors in her office engaged in serious misconduct. Saying her Conviction Integrity Unit has found new evidence that Johnson is actually innocent, she sought a new trial.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan denied that request. She says Gardner’s motion came “approximately 24 years” past the deadline. Tricia Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project, isn’t buying it.

Speaking by phone on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, she pushed back on the idea that it was too late for justice, or that Johnson had “exhausted” his appeals.

“Certainly he applied for appeals over and over and over again, but he never had an evidentiary hearing on those appeals,” Bushnell said. “The court never took the time to give him due process, to hear the evidence on the innocence that he was trying to present. So to simply say it’s too late? He’s never had the process at all.” 

Listen here:

Mike Jarvis and Ginny Schrappen also joined the conversation. They have gotten to know Lamar Johnson after years of corresponding with him in jail. The two began writing to him when they were parishioners at Mary, Mother of God parish in south St. Louis County. Jarvis has since helped him obtain records for his case. And for Schrappen, it’s been a remarkable 21-year correspondence.

“I feel race is a big thing with this, with his life, with the sentence alone,” she said, “because he is a man of color and was poor, so he had public defenders.”

Bushnell said those circumstances are far from unusual. “It’s tragically common, especially here in Missouri, where our public defenders are vastly underfunded and under-resourced,” she said. 

State Attorney General Eric Schmitt has gotten involved with the case at Hogan’s request. The office has opposed prosecutors’ motion for a new trial. 

Schmitt’s office declined to have a representative on the show, but did send the following statement:

“Reviewing convictions and ensuring justice is done is an important part of our justice system. There are laws and Supreme Court Rules in place precisely to ensure the integrity of that justice system. Efforts to avoid, subvert, or remove those laws and rules do more harm than good to the administration of justice. Such efforts can sometimes have the consequences of undermining the very due process to which criminal defendants are entitled. The applicable laws and Supreme Court Rules provide for an orderly, established legal process for Mr. Johnson to pursue his claim of newly discovered evidence. His lawyers are well versed in that procedure, and Mr. Johnson, assisted by his lawyers, has pursued that process before. In this case, Mr. Johnson’s lawyers and the Circuit Attorney’s Office attempted to avoid those established procedures. Additionally, this is an issue that deals exclusively with jurisdiction, and not questions of innocence or guilt. The Court appointed the Attorney General’s Office to protect the rule of law and the integrity of our justice system and correctly decided that Mr. Johnson and the Circuit Attorney needed to pursue the correct procedure.” 

Said Bushnell, “What isn’t addressed at all is: What is the circuit attorney's ability and process and procedure to correct this injustice? And if the attorney general believes there is a process for her to do that, to meet her duty, he has yet to articulate that.”

Jarvis and Schrappen have recently talked to Johnson and said he remains hopeful that he will be released. As for Bushnell, she said attorneys will appeal Judge Hogan’s ruling.

Alexis Moore assisted in writing this web summary.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Alexis Moore. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.