A Missouri judge has vacated a 50-year-old man’s murder conviction after he served more than half of his life in prison.
The court noted his lawyers were able to present “reliable evidence of actual innocence,” including testimony from two men who admitted to signing affidavits they were the ones who pulled the trigger and killed the man in question in the mid-’90s.
On Tuesday, Feb. 14, Lamar Johnson’s life sentence was overturned by St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason. He had served 28 years for allegedly killing Marcus Boyd in October 1994, but he was able to spend Valentine’s Day 2023 with family and friends. That’s thanks to the support of St. Louis Circuit attorney Kim Gardner, who filed a motion in August 2022 to have Johnson freed, along with the Innocence Project.
Gardner tweeted, “Today the courts righted a wrong – vacating the sentence of Mr. Lamar Johnson following his wrongful conviction in 1995.”
“This case says that in the state of Missouri, a person’s right to justice and liberty is valued more than the finality of an unjust conviction. My office fought long and hard … We are pleased that Mr. Johnson will have the opportunity to be the man and member of our community that he desires.”
Authorities say Boyd, then 25, was fatally shot on his porch by two masked assailants over an argument about drug money amounting to about $40, CBS News reports. Johnson, who has maintained his innocence since being arrested, says that while he was a drug dealer at the time, he did not kill the victim.
Johnson’s alibi was that he was with his girlfriend Erika Barrow at the time of the shooting. She testified during his trial that the two were together the entire night, except for the five minutes when he left to make a drug deal. She argued that there was no way he could have gone to the scene of the crime and back to her in that short span of time.
Prosecutors argued that when Johnson stepped outside, he traveled “three miles to Boyd’s front porch, shot him, fled on foot and arrived back at the apartment — all in ‘no more than five minutes.'”
James Gregory Elking, the then-drug addict who bought crack cocaine from Boyd on the night of his demise, saw the two gunmen. However, it was dark and the men were wearing black ski masks. Elking told the investigators then, he was not certain who the shooters were.
In 1995, prosecutor Dwight Warren said he knew that Elking’s testimony would be “iffy” alone and coupled it with a jailhouse informant’s testimony as the main evidence through which he was able to get a conviction.
William Mock said he overheard Johnson talking about the murder with another man named Phil Campbell, while the two were in jail.
Campbell would later admit he was guilty of killing Boyd and accepted a guilty plea in order to get a reduced charge in exchange for seven years in prison. Johnson, who refused to admit to the crime, went to trial and was convicted and sentenced to life.
Years later, another man would emerge and admit to being the accomplice that was with Campbell during Boyd’s killing.
James Howard, now serving life in prison for murder and other crimes after Boyd’s death, testified he and Campbell planned to rob Boyd because he owed one of their associates drug money. He said he shot the victim in the head and neck, while his partner shot Boyd in the side.
As he detailed the crime in the hearing, he was clear: Johnson was not there.
In fact, he and Campbell, before he died, signed court affidavits admitting to the murder and emphatically stating Johnson had nothing to do with the crime. That was gold for Johnson’s team.
Still, Johnson was not freed, until the Innocence Project and Gardner got involved.
Elking, in the new case, said he was encouraged to point someone out in a lineup by detective Joseph Nickerson.
Nickerson told him, “I know you know who it is … help get these guys off the street.” The man said he felt “bullied” and “pressured” to name Johnson as a shooter. Gardner’s office later discovered Elking, the man who was buying the crack cocaine at the time of the shooting, was paid at least $4,000 to testify against Johnson.
Elking’s testimony, according to the St. Louis Public Radio, was invaluable to Johnson’s freedom.
“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 about his decision.
This journey was not easy; in March 2021, a request to give Johnson a new trial was denied by the Missouri Supreme Court.
The office of former attorney general Eric Schmitt argued that Gardner did not have the authority to ask for a retrial, especially so many years since the case was adjudicated.
Gardner then went to work to get legislation passed in the state that changed this law. Now the law allows for cases with fresh evidence that could support a claim of a wrongful conviction to be presented in a hearing. Already, it has resulted in the freedom of a man, Kevin Strickland, locked up for years for a crime he did not commit.
Reportedly, the AG’s office that has fought against granting Johnson a trial will not fight the judge’s decision.
Madeline Sieren, a spokesperson for the new AG, said in a statement, “As he stated when he was sworn in, Attorney General (Andrew) Bailey is 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,” she continued.
Johnson is not eligible for state restitution according to law because DNA evidence did not toss out his conviction.
“While today brings joy, nothing can restore all that the state stole from him. Nothing will give him back the nearly three decades he lost while separated from his daughters and family,” Johnson’s attorneys said. “The evidence that proved his innocence was available at his trial, but it was kept hidden or ignored by those who saw no value in the lives of two young Black men from the South Side.”
Johnson’s release has spurred a state legislative proposal that would allow people who are found to be wrongfully convicted of crimes by any method to receive $100 for each day of post-conviction incarceration, St. Louis Public Radio reports.
Johnson didn’t have a great deal to say upon his release from the Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. He did offer this to the press, “I want to thank, first off, people who had information about the case and came forward with the truth. All of the people who came out and supported me — this is overwhelming. I just thank everybody. Just thank you.”
He also said, “This is unbelievable.”