Testing Lamar Johnson’s claim of innocence in a St. Louis court
Last week, St. Louis Circuit Court Judge David Mason presided over multiple days of hearings as local prosecutors argued that Lamar Johnson, who was convicted of murder in 1995, is actually innocent.
The hearings were dramatic. The star witness of the original murder trial nearly 30 years ago told the court that he was pressured by police to identify Johnson. On the first day of hearings, another man confessed on the witness stand to the murder. For three years, the Circuit Attorney's Office has maintained its former prosecutors wrongly convicted Johnson and suppressed evidence during his trial.
The hearings were also a historic rebuke to the “tremendous miscarriage of justice” that must occur to produce a wrongful conviction, observed David Roland, the litigation director at the Freedom Center of Missouri.
“I'm thrilled that we have folks who are having their opportunity to have their claims heard like this,” Roland said. “I'm optimistic that Mr. Johnson is going to finally have justice in this case.”
Booker T. Shaw, a former prosecutor and a former justice on the Missouri Court of Appeals eastern district, agreed.
“The fact that this hearing has been held is a huge step in the right direction,” he continued. “Someone else has claimed responsibility, and that claim is backed up by other evidence… so there are a number of factors at play for Judge Mason to consider.”
With the hearings concluded, a decision by Judge Mason could arrive in a matter of weeks, Shaw predicted.
Johnson’s case is the second time that a prosecutor has sought a hearing to determine the innocence of someone already convicted of a crime. The hearings are mandated under a 2021 state law — but last month, in the death penalty case of Kevin Johnson, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to stay the execution. The decision came with a dissent from Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who wrote that the Missouri Supreme Court “flouted the plain language” of state law.
Sarah Swatosh, an attorney specializing in labor and employment law, told St. Louis on the Air that she is worried that the higher court could intervene again in the future, potentially blocking the state courts from holding the hearings that could lead to freedom for inmates like Lamar Johnson.
“Do we want to see more hearings? Yes,” she said. “Am I concerned that the process will be short-circuited? Yes. Because that's exactly what happened in the Kevin Johnson case.”
The Legal Roundtable also discussed the curious case of the ownership of the Fabulous Fox Theater and the ongoing lawsuit from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt against Dr. Anthony Fauci over alleged social media censorship.
To hear more from attorneys Booker T. Shaw, Sarah Swatosh and Dave Rowland, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.
“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 produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.