Sentencing/Post Conviction

Man who spent 28 years in prison is exonerated with help of pro bono lawyers

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AP Lamar Johnson

Lamar Johnson and his attorneys react Feb. 14 after Judge David Mason vacated his murder conviction during a hearing in St. Louis. Photo by Christian Gooden/The St. Louis Post-Dispatch via the Associated Press.

A 2021 Missouri law that allows prosecutors to ask courts to set aside wrongful convictions has resulted in the exoneration of a man who spent 28 years in prison for murder.

Two pro bono lawyers from Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner worked as special prosecutors for St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner during a weeklong trial to prove the innocence of Lamar Johnson, according to a Feb. 14 Bryan Cave press release.

The Associated Press, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis Public Radio and the Kansas City Star have coverage.

On Tuesday, Judge David Mason of the Missouri 22nd Judicial Circuit Court found that Johnson was actually innocent in the 1994 shooting death of Marcus Boyd. Johnson’s co-defendant and another man later confessed to the crime, and a key witness recanted. Yet then-Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt fought to keep Johnson in prison, citing credibility issues and contradictory statements by people now vouching for him.

“Winning at all costs was all that mattered” to the state attorney general, Johnson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Johnson has said he was with his girlfriend on the night of the crime, with the exception of a few minutes when he went outside to make a drug sale.

Before 2022, convicted Missouri defendants but not prosecutors could seek to overturn their criminal convictions. Gardner’s office had concluded that Johnson was innocent in 2019, but it wasn’t able to obtain a new trial.

Johnson’s case was the first in which St. Louis prosecutors sought an exoneration under the 2021 law, according to the Bryan Cave press release.

The two Bryan Cave lawyers appointed as prosecutors seeking to overturn the conviction were Charles A. Weiss and Jonathan B. Potts. The Midwest Innocence Project and the law firms Morgan Pilate and Lathrop GPM worked on the case for Johnson.

“It took an innocence organization, three law firms, the circuit attorney, both chambers of Missouri’s legislature and the governor’s signature on a law passed for him, to free Lamar Johnson,” said the lawyers representing Johnson in a statement, according to the Kansas City Star. “That is intolerable. That is not justice. We can and must do better.”

Johnson is not entitled to compensation from the state because it is offered only to people exonerated by DNA evidence.

See also: “How Black female prosecutors are challenging the status quo and fighting for reform”

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