A Missouri judge on Tuesday overturned the conviction of a man who served nearly 28 years to life in prison for a murder he always said he did not commit.
Lamar Johnson, 50, closed his eyes and shook his head slightly as a woman on his legal team patted him on the back as Judge David Mason issued his ruling.
Before announcing his decision, Mason said that when assessing the case, there should be “reliable evidence of actual innocence – evidence so credible that it actually passes the standard of clarity and convincing.”
A court official said after the hearing that Mr. Johnson would be “sued” but should be available out of court soon.
The Circuit Attorney of St. Louis, Kim Gardner, filed a motion in August calling for Johnson’s release, leading to a December hearing before Mason.
“Today, the courts corrected an error – overturning Mr. Lamar Johnson, following his wrongful conviction in 1995,” Gardner said in a statement after Tuesday’s hearing. “More importantly, we celebrated with Mr. Johnson and his family as he walks out of court a free man.”
Mrs. Gardner said she is “pleased that Mr. Johnson will have the opportunity to be the man and member of the community that he wants to be.”
The Missouri attorney general’s office argued at the December hearing that Johnson should remain in prison.
Johnson was convicted of murder for the 1994 murder of Marcus Boyd. Police and prosecutors attributed the murder to a dispute over drug money. From the outset, Mr Johnson has maintained his innocence, saying he was with his girlfriend miles (kilometers) away when the crime took place.
Gardner said an investigation conducted by her office with the help of the Innocence Project convinced her that Johnson was telling the truth.
Boyd was shot dead on the front porch of his home by two men wearing ski masks on October 30, 1994. Johnson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, a second suspect, Phil Campbell, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in exchange for a seven-year prison term.
Johnson testified at the December hearing that he was with his girlfriend the night of the murder, except for a few minutes when he left a friend’s house to sell drugs on a street corner several blocks from where the victim was killed.
“Did you kill Marcus Boyd?” asked a lawyer.
“No, sir,” replied Lamar Johnson.
Mr.’s girlfriend Johnson at the time, Erika Barrow, testified that she was with Johnson all night, except for about five minutes when he left to make the drug sale. She said the distance between the friend’s house and Boyd’s house would have made it impossible for Johnson to get there and back in five minutes.
The case for the release of Mr. Johnson was centered around a key witness who recanted his testimony and an inmate who says it was him—not Mr. Johnson – who joined Campbell in the assassination.
James Howard, 46, is serving a life sentence for murder and several other crimes that happened three years after Boyd was killed. He testified at the hearing that he and Campbell decided to rob Boyd, who owed money to one of his friends from selling drugs.
Howard testified that he shot Boyd in the back of the head and neck, and that Campbell shot Boyd in the side.
“Was Lamar Johnson there?” asked Jonathan Potts, Johnson’s attorney.
“No,” Howard replied.
Howard and Campbell years ago signed affidavits admitting to the crime and stating that Mr. Johnson was not involved. Campbell is already dead.
James Gregory Elking testified in December that he was on the front porch with Boyd, trying to buy crack, when the two gunmen wearing black ski masks walked around the house and began their attack. Elking, who later spent several years in prison for bank robbery, initially told police he was unable to identify the shooters.
He agreed to see a lineup anyway. Elking testified that when he was unable to name anyone on the lineup as a shooter, Detective Joseph Nickerson told him, “I know you know who you are” and urged him to “help get these guys off the street.”
Saying he felt “intimidated” and “pressured”, Elking named Johnson as one of the shooters. Gardner’s office said Elking also received at least $4,000 after agreeing to testify.
“It’s been haunting me,” he said of his role in sending Johnson to prison.
Nickerson denied coercing Elking. He testified in December that Elking’s identification of Johnson was based on everything he could see in the shooter’s face-eyes of him. Johnson has one eye that looks different than the other, Nickerson said. “You can see clearly.”
Dwight Warren, who sued Johnson in 1995, said that in addition to Elking’s testimony, the main evidence against Johnson was an overheard conversation in the prison cell. A prison informant, William Mock, told investigators at the time that he overheard Campbell and Johnson talking when one of them said, “We should have shot that white boy,” apparently referring to Elking.
Warren acknowledged that convicting Johnson would have been “iffy” without Mock’s testimony.
At the December hearing, Special Assistant District Attorney Charles Weiss sought to raise credibility questions about Mock, noting that he sought release from incarceration as a reward for helping the case. He had managed to obtain parole following a similar prison revelation years earlier in Kansas City, Missouri.
Nickerson described Mr. Johnson as a violent drug dealer who had been arrested for murders “probably three times” before Boyd’s death, but was never convicted because witnesses were unwilling to testify.
Judge Mason heard this, paused, and asked, “Are you sure this isn’t a situation where you were in a bit of a hurry to make a conviction?”
“Not at all, Your Honor, not at all,” Nickerson replied.
In March 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court denied Mr. Johnson for a new trial after the office of then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt successfully argued that Ms. Gardner did not have the authority to apply for one so many years after the case went to trial.
The case led to the passage of a state law that makes it easier for prosecutors to obtain new hearings in cases where there is new evidence of a wrongful conviction. That law freed another longtime prisoner, Kevin Strickland, last year. He served over 40 years for a Kansas City triple murder.