In a case showing just how much the criminal justice system favors form and finality over substance, a Missouri judge has denied a request by the St Louis District Attorney’s Office to overturn the conviction of Lamar Johnson, who is serving his 24th year of incarceration. Particularly shocking is that the St Louis DA Kim Gardner is admits that her office engaged in “serious misconduct” in obtaining Lamar Johnson’s conviction all those years ago.
Judge Elizabeth B. Hogan based her decisions on a a court statute that requires such motion to be made within fifteen days of the conviction so she told the prosecutors they were late by “approximately 24 years.” She seemingly ignored case law that allows the motion to be heard beyond the 15-day deadline in “extraordinary circumstances” and “in the interests of justice.” For example, a 1984 Missouri appeals court ruled that
a “perversion of justice” would occur if “we were to close our
eyes to the existence of the newly discovered evidence” solely because of
a missed deadline.
This case definitely seems to apply under both “extraordinary circumstances” and newly discovered evidence.”
Johnson was convicted of fatally shooting a man named Marcus Boyd in 1995. Prosecutors back then acknowledged that Johnson had a good alibi – that he was socializing with friends at an apartment, which was corroborated by those who were there. But they said he committed the murder by leaving the apartment, traveling by foot three miles to Boyd’s front porch, shooting him, fleeing back on foot and arriving back at the party — all in “no more than five minutes.” The DA’s re-investigation found however that police invented statements in police reports and pressured the sole eyewitness into identifying Johnson as the shooter. The DA’s Office also paid more than $4,000 to the eyewitness for his cooperation, reportedly for housing and moving expenses but never revealed that payment to the court or defense counsel. The witness later recanted his testimony in 2003. Police also invented testimony about the alleged motive from four people, all of whom later told investigators that they never gave those statements to a detective, according to the DA’s report.
But the shocking aspects of this case do not end there, fair reader.
DA Kim Gardner formed a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) to re-examine old cases. It was her CIU that took a new look at the Johnson case and uncovered the serious misconduct by the DA’s Office and St. Louis Police. They then filed a motion to vacate Lamar Johnson’s conviction and asking for a new trial based on their detailed investigative report. Before deciding the motion, Judge Hogan, whose been on the bench sine 2005, reached out for advice to the State Attorney General’s Office asking whether DA Gardner could even make the motion since she had ” a conflict of interest” because she was attacking her own office’s prior conduct. The Attorney General responded that in their opinion Judge Hogan did not have authority to grant the new trial and DA Gardner did not have the power to ask her for one, saying other state and federal courts that have reviewed Johnson’s claims in the past have rejected his petitions. (Of course, none of those petitions had the evidence found by DA Gardner’s CIU).
In support of Gardner’s motion, 43 elected prosecutors warned Judge Hogan that viewing Gardner’s efforts to illuminate her office’s past misconduct as a “conflict of interest” would undermine the ethical duty to correct wrongful convictions. They wrote: When the existence of a wrongful conviction becomes clear, an obligation arises to intervene and halt the continued incarceration of an individual previously prosecuted by that office,” the prosecutors wrote in the brief. “As a duly elected minister of justice, a prosecutor’s obligation to correct a known injustice never/ terminates. Because that obligation never terminates, neither does the prosecutor’s right to pursue an appropriate remedy in court, as [Gardner] has done here.”
Judge Hogan, however, responded to that brief by noting that the Missouri
General Assembly had not passed laws providing the state’s CIUs the ability
to waive procedural rules unlike laws forming other conviction integrity units nationwide that have been able to overturn wrongful convictions. So she denied the motion. Johnson and his legal team will be filing appeals to try and get someone to exercise common sense and human dignity.
The Johnson case highlights just how tough it can be to get judges and the court system to overturn a bad conviction. Here, the sitting DA admits her office engaged in prosecutorial misconduct and uncovered falsification of numerous reports; case law supports ignoring the statutory deadline; 43 prosecutors encourage the judge to allow the DA to do this; the sole eyewitness recants; and the evidence is flimsy as a spider’s web in rainstorm , but nope, not enough.
It is incumbent on us to get legislators to add “actual innocence” language into the criminal procedure laws of every State so that artificial deadlines don’t derail a good faith application for a new trial based on a actual innocence. We need to elect judges and district attorneys that have a balanced view of the criminal justice system and acknowledge that a function of that system is to correct past errors.
Kudos to Lamar Johnson and his lawyers, as well as DA Kim Gardner for their work on this case to date. I hope they keep up the fight to get justice in this case.
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