Lamar Johnson prepares to walk out of a St. Louis courthouse on Feb. 14 following his exoneration in a murder case that sent him to prison in 1995. A pair of attorneys from Lathrop GPM represented Johnson in helping convince a judge that false testimony had resulted in his wrongful conviction for the crime. (Courtesy of Lathrop GPM)
On Valentine's Day, Lamar Johnson sat down at a local St. Louis restaurant, looked at his place setting and realized that, for the first time in nearly three decades, he could use a knife to eat his dinner.
Johnson had been released from prison only hours earlier after a team of attorneys from Lathrop GPM helped convince a Missouri circuit court judge to exonerate him for a 1994 murder he didn't commit. After almost 30 years of incarceration, it's little things like a dinner knife that mean the most.
"It was something that we wouldn't think twice about, but for 28 years he wasn't able to eat his meals with a knife," said Matt Jacober, part of the Lathrop team who represented Johnson pro bono. "It's such a small thing, but it was such a moment and it's something I'll never forget because it shows just how much was taken away from Lamar."
For as much as Johnson is appreciating the almost infinite small differences between his life in custody and his new life as a free man, his exoneration also signifies one big milestone in the course of criminal law in Missouri as he became one of the first two people in the state to be released under a statute giving prosecutors new authority to challenge wrongful convictions.
The legislative change came after St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner unsuccessfully petitioned to have Johnson set free after a new investigation by her office determined that Johnson's murder case had been marred by false testimony.
Jacober and Alana McMullin from Lathrop got involved in Johnson's defense in 2019 through their work with the Missouri Innocence Project. Meanwhile, a pair of attorneys from Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner — Jonathan Potts and Charles Weiss — were brought on as special prosecutors in the conviction integrity unit in Gardner's office.
The case ultimately landed before the Missouri Supreme Court, which rejected a motion from Gardner's office for a new trial on grounds that state law required retrial motions to be filed no more than 15 days after a conviction.
A few months later, the Missouri state legislature passed Senate Bill 53, giving prosecutors a pathway to overturn wrongful convictions past the original 15-day deadline. The result was a weeklong new trial for Johnson in December and his subsequent release on Feb. 14.
A jury convicted Johnson in 1995 and sentenced him to life in prison for the shooting death of 25-year-old Marcus Boyd. Johnson has always maintained his innocence, and, according to Jacober, spent his first 20 years in prison writing letters, filing public record requests, and pursuing appeals to get someone to listen to his story and realize the justice system had made a grave mistake.
According to Missouri Circuit Judge David C. Mason's Feb. 14 opinion exonerating Johnson, there had been no physical evidence linking Johnson to Boyd's murder in October 1994. The judge also noted that Johnson had offered an alibi, and that the state never presented evidence of a motive during the original trial.
Meanwhile, Judge Mason said the only eyewitness to the shooting was James "Greg" Elking, who picked Johnson out of a lineup of suspects in exchange for a $4,000 payment from a victim services agency.
The state also relied on a conversation allegedly overheard by a jailhouse informant, William Mock, who agreed to testify that Johnson had admitted to the killing while in custody. But Judge Mason said in his opinion that it had never been established that the person Mock claimed to have overhead was, in fact, Johnson, leading jurors to have to reach an improperly speculative conclusion on the speaker's identity.
These problems and others, uncovered decades later, "are not merely evidentiary, but cut to the heart of Johnson's right to a fair trial," the judge said.
In a statement, Gardner said Johnson's case was about the ability of an elected prosecutor to fix a manifest injustice.
"My office fought long and hard, we took this case all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. We are pleased that Mr. Johnson will have the opportunity to be the man and member of our community that he desires," she said.
While the passage of S.B. 53 created a light at the end of the tunnel, McMullin told Law360 that the case presented many challenges along the way, from anticipating potential opposition from the state attorney general's office to eventually getting the case in front of a judge.
"Finally when we got our [trial] date set ... I think the difficulty then became making sure all the evidence came out," McMullin said. "We had to do a lot of interviews with witnesses to make sure they were comfortable talking. I mean, this happened 28 years ago, a lot of people are dead and other people don't want to get involved."
Potts agreed that there were clear uncertainties in calling witnesses back to the stand to recant things they'd previously sworn to.
"We were asking Elking to come in and admit under oath that he testified falsely in a first-degree murder trial. He had to come into a courtroom and make that admission, and it's something where that could go awry," Potts said. "Is he going to suddenly clam up? Is he going to invoke his Fifth Amendment right?"
But overcoming the obstacles and ultimately securing Johnson's freedom was meaningful, the attorneys said, because it showcased the ability of the justice system to correct itself.
"We all know that there are innocent people in prison ... and the public's faith in the justice system isn't undermined but restored when you're able to come back and fix an injustice," Potts said.
The Office of the Missouri Attorney General has strongly opposed Johnson's release, but a spokeswoman for newly inaugurated Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who was sworn in last month, said it would respect the court's decision.
"Attorney General Andrew Bailey is committed to enforcing the laws as written," office spokeswoman Madeline Sieren said in a statement to Law360. "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 court has spoken, and no further action will be taken in this case."
Jacober said that securing a win for Johnson held a special place in his heart because of the type of person Johnson is.
"He's just a good person," Jacober said. "He's got this inner peace ... that I don't think I would have if I were in his position."
"I've never seen someone smile so big when they realize that they can order whatever food they want and they can have a knife at the table. I mean, it's the simple things like that," Jacober added. "Hugging his mom without a guard saying, 'That's enough.' Hugging his daughters. I think he is going to enjoy every second of every day for the rest of his life."
Due to current Missouri law, Johnson will not receive any compensation from the government for the time he served, which Jacober called "disappointing." At the same time, however, Johnson is reveling in the ability to restart his life, including walking his daughter down the aisle in a few months.
In a statement to Law360, Johnson said: "For 28 years I lived inside a maximum security prison for a crime I didn't commit. I desperately wanted my family and the rest of the world to know I was innocent, and of course, wanted my deserved freedom.
"I lost so many appeals, so many times, that it knocked the wind out of me. However, today the world knows I'm innocent and I have my wind back. My feet are on solid ground and I'm ready for takeoff."
--Editing by Marygrace Anderson.
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