Lamar Johnson Spent 28 Years in Jail Because of a Racist Justice System

Lamar Johnson’s 1995 murder conviction was overturned on Tuesday — but only after he spent most of his life in jail. The circumstances of his wrongful conviction reflect an American justice system quick to condemn working-class men of color.

Lamar Johnson, center, and his attorneys react on February 14, 2023, after St Louis Circuit Court judge David Mason vacated Johnson’s murder conviction during a hearing at Mel Carnahan Courthouse in St Louis, Missouri. (Christian Gooden / Pool / St. Louis Post-Dispatch / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

On Tuesday afternoon, the courtroom erupted in cheers as St Louis Circuit Court judge David Mason announced his decision to overturn Lamar Johnson’s 1995 murder conviction. Johnson — now forty-nine years old — wiped tears from his eyes as the verdict was read. Johnson has spent more than half of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Post-conviction relief is a notoriously difficult area of law, as once a jury verdict has been entered it can be nearly impossible to overturn. Yet, thanks to a new Missouri law enacted in May 2021, local prosecutors now have the power to challenge past wrongful convictions from their offices, a legal mechanism established in other states and long overdue in Missouri.

St Louis, Missouri is a city that has been particularly plagued by difficulties and scandals in the operation of its criminal legal system. In 2014, St Louis County came under national scrutiny in the wake of the Ferguson uprising and investigations by the US Department of Justice that revealed a legal system comprised of predatory and racist policies enacted by the Ferguson Police Department and enforced by local municipal courts.

For decades now, St Louis crime statistics have placed the municipality at or near the top of the United States’ most violent or deadliest cities. Yet, the Missouri State Public Defender Office has been underfunded to the point of crisis for years. Undoubtedly, there are dozens or even hundreds of cases like Johnson’s: people who have been incarcerated for decades because of the racist practices and even the general incompetence of the Missouri legal system. Johnson’s exoneration is likely to have far-reaching implications for how Missouri moves forward handling wrongful conviction cases.

The Hearings

December 12, 2022, marked the first of five days of hearings in the St Louis Circuit Court to consider the motion to vacate Lamar Johnson’s 1995 murder conviction. The hearings played out dramatically, in a crowded courtroom and livestreamed by the local media. Almost three decades after Johnson’s first trial, the shocking testimony included a confession by a third party, the recanting of the only eyewitness identification from the original trial, and the first-ever testimony by Johnson.

Unlike typical criminal proceedings, which see a defense attorney arguing against a prosecuting attorney, these hearings had the St Louis city prosecutor’s office — which secured the conviction against Johnson — advocating for his innocence. The prosecutor’s office faced off against the Missouri Office of the Attorney General, which argued to uphold Johnson’s conviction despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence. Johnson was personally represented by the Midwest Innocence Project, an organization which had been working on his case since 2008.

This historic case marks the first time that a St Louis judge has ruled on an innocence claim filed by the prosecuting attorney. Prior to Johnson’s case, in the St Louis area, neither St Louis City’s circuit prosecuting attorney Kimberly Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit nor St Louis County prosecuting attorney Wesley Bell’s Conviction and Incident Review Unit had secured any exonerations since the new law was passed in 2021.

It has been three years since Gardner first attempted to overturn Johnson’s conviction. The process began when Gardner’s office opened a Conviction Integrity Unit in 2018. Johnson’s case was the first investigation by the unit. The investigation yielded substantial evidence of Johnson’s innocence, as well as police and prosecutorial misconduct. In 2019, Gardner filed to vacate his conviction. It was the first exoneration case that any prosecutor in St Louis City or County had ever filed.

That motion to vacate was denied by the Circuit Court. It eventually went before the Missouri Supreme Court, which ruled that the Gardner, as a local prosecutor, did not have the authority to file for a new trial so many years after the case was decided. However, spurred to action by the compelling facts of Johnson’s case, the Missouri legislature responded to the Supreme Court decision within a few months by passing new legislation (officially known as RsMo § 547.031), empowering prosecutors to challenge past convictions. Relying on that new law, Gardner filed a second motion to vacate the judgment against Johnson in August 2022. It was this motion that came before Judge Mason in December, and which led to Johnson’s exoneration.

The Murder

At around 9:00 p.m. on the evening of October 30, 1994, the then-twenty-one-year-old Lamar Johnson’s friend Markus Boyd was shot to death while sitting on the porch of his St Louis apartment. The only eyewitness to the crime was Greg Elking, one of Boyd’s coworkers, who was sitting on the porch with him at the time of the shooting.

It is undisputed that there were two shooters, that both were African American men, and that both were wearing all-black clothing with ski masks covering their faces, except their eyes. The men approached the house from the rear alley and came onto the porch with their guns drawn. One man held Elking at gunpoint while the other attempted to lead Boyd into the house in order to rob a safe Boyd kept inside. A struggle ensued, and eventually both masked men shot Boyd multiple times. The men ran off, and Elking fled to safety at his nearby home.

Boyd’s girlfriend Leslie Williams and their infant child were inside the apartment at the time of the shooting. Williams ran downstairs at the sound of gunshots and looked out the window in time to see one of the men shoot Boyd. She ran back upstairs to protect their child and call 911.

Boyd and Johnson were old friends; Johnson’s former girlfriend described them as “like brothers,” noting that the pair had lived together in the past. At trial, the state would present no evidence of a motive for the murder.

The police quickly narrowed the focus of their investigation to Johnson, along with Phillip Campbell, as the two shooters. Johnson was prosecuted first, and his trial lasted just two days. Johnson’s attorney called only one witness to testify on his behalf. He was quickly convicted of first-degree murder and armed criminal action. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

The Hearings Continued

Nearly thirty years after he was jailed, Johnson’s wrongful conviction case came before Judge David Mason, who presided over the hearings with an impartial, no-nonsense attitude, often interrupting witnesses to ask his own questions, or clarify their answers. Under, RsMo § 547.031, the court must set aside the conviction upon a finding of “clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence”.

Overturning convictions is extremely challenging within the US legal system — especially given courts’ tendency to prioritize “finality over fairness.” Finality is certainly the priority for the Missouri Office of the Attorney General. Assistant Attorney General Miranda Loesch argued that Johnson’s conviction should be upheld. Loesch focused on exposing credibility issues or contradictory statements by Johnson’s witnesses. She addressed the judge saying, “[a]t the end of this hearing, they’re going to ask you to believe convicted murderers and gang members.”

On the first day of hearings, James Howard testified and plainly confessed to the crime, claiming Johnson was not involved. When asked “How did Markus Boyd die?” Howard responded, “Me and Phillip Campbell killed him on his front porch.” Campbell was originally prosecuted for the murder along with Johnson, but sentenced to only seven years for involuntary manslaughter because the prosecution’s star witness, Greg Elking, refused to continue cooperating with the state after Johnson’s trial.

Elking was the only person who had ever identified Johnson as the murderer. Elking is white and Johnson is black. Studies have shown that cross-racial identifications — as in this instance — are much less accurate. But as Gardner’s motion pointed out, Elking’s identification was also that of a stranger wearing a ski mask, at night and in dim lighting.

Elking was also called to the stand during the hearings. He testified at length and fully recanted his original identification of Johnson, saying that the case has been “haunting” him. In a letter to his pastor dated July 12, 2003, Elking detailed how the police coerced him into making the identification of Johnson. He wrote, “the detectives . . . convinced me that they could help me financially.” And they did. Between November 1994 and March 1995, the state provided Elking with more than $4,200 in expenses helping him relocate to an apartment in the county, among other benefits. Elking’s letter continued, “they said they knew who murdered Marcus Boyd. They had me say the suspects numbers in the line-up, and told me to say the reason I didn’t pick them out while the line-up was going on, was because I was scared and terrified.”

Police and Prosecutorial Misconduct

Lamar Johnson testified that part of his relationship with Boyd involved a joint operation of selling drugs. He also admitted that he was affiliated with a neighborhood gang. Johnson’s sentence — life without the possibility of parole — was due in part to his prior criminal record.

It’s almost certain that these facts contributed to the decades-long delay in justice for Johnson. As Jacki Wang has pointed out in her seminal essay “Against Innocence,” a “politics of innocence” which predicates political support and public outrage on having a morally pure or blameless victim is an “appeal to the white imaginary” and ultimately “re-entrenches a logic that criminalizes race.”

Whether Johnson was guilty or not, the reopening of his case has highlighted the gross misconduct of police and prosecutors in St Louis. The record shows how St Louis police coerced and secretly compensated the sole eyewitness and failed to investigate Johnson’s alibi. For their part, the prosecution solicited perjured testimony, called upon an unreliable jailhouse informant, and hid exculpatory evidence from Johnson’s defense attorney.

Johnson’s arrest and trial paint a picture of a systematically dysfunctional and corrupt criminal law system in St Louis in the 1990s. And although Johnson is in fact innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, we should avoid using his case to support a liberal “politics of innocence” that legitimizes the criminal legal system by telling a story that those who are truly “innocent” will ultimately see justice served.

Missouri Law

Since 2021, when the new law was enacted, Missouri has seen a wave of motions by prosecutors seeking to overturn their own office’s convictions. Recently, Kevin Johnson was executed by the state of Missouri, despite the fact that the county prosecutor had filed a motion to vacate his conviction. That motion relied on the same law that has now freed Lamar Johnson from a life sentence.

The state of Missouri has robbed Johnson of his youth, the chance to raise his only child, and much of his life’s earning potential. Yet Missouri law ensures that the state does not bear the cost of compensation for the victims of wrongful convictions and incarceration.

Under Missouri law, Johnson is not eligible for any amount of restitution from the state because his exoneration was not proven through DNA evidence. If Johnson had been exonerated through DNA evidence, he would be eligible for compensation of over $1,000,000 based on the state calculation of payment up to $100 per day of post-conviction incarceration. The Midwest Innocence Project has organized a fundraiser to provide Johnson with financial assistance as he reestablishes his life in St Louis.