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Prosecutors battle over whether Lamar Johnson's sentence was a wrongful conviction

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's an extraordinary legal battle underway in St. Louis this week in an effort to release a man from prison. Lamar Johnson maintained for years he was innocent of murder. St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum says Johnson has an unlikely ally, St. Louis's prosecutor.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Johnson was convicted in 1995 of murdering a man in St. Louis. Two men in ski masks approached Marcus Boyd on his porch and fatally shot him. Johnson contended for years he wasn't involved in the killing. After close to 28 years in prison, a St. Louis judge is holding a new hearing on whether Johnson's sentence should be set aside. And on the surface, Johnson has a lot going for him. A key eyewitness recanted his prior statements that Johnson killed Boyd. And during the hearing, there was this exchange between an attorney and James Howard, who was on the witness stand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: Do you know whether Marcus Boyd is alive today?

JAMES HOWARD: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: Is he alive or dead?

HOWARD: He's dead.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: How did Marcus die?

HOWARD: Me and Phillip Campbell killed him on his front porch.

ROSENBAUM: That startling admission to murder is not the only thing that's unusual about this case. The person trying to free Johnson from prison is St. Louis circuit attorney Kim Gardner.

KIM GARDNER: We don't want the wrong person to be charged or put into a conviction that was obtained unlawfully or with bad evidence.

ROSENBAUM: Gardner set up a Conviction Integrity Unit early in her tenure to review past cases like Johnson's. However, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that she didn't have the power to push for Johnson's release. That decision led to state lawmakers like Senator Brian Williams to pass a new law that same year. It allows prosecutors to try to vacate prison sentences handed down in older cases. There have been numerous instances in Missouri and elsewhere of African Americans being released from prison after it was discovered they were wrongfully convicted.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: It could be one situation where someone says that you may look like or fit the description of someone and ultimately go to prison for the rest of your life.

ROSENBAUM: The new law led to the release of a Kansas City man exonerated last year who had served more than 40 years in prison for a triple murder. Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who handled that case, says the process was not easy. There was immense pushback from the state attorney general's office.

JEAN PETERS BAKER: The way they presently handle these cases is really not like practitioners, but like people who, you know, want to fight to the death.

ROSENBAUM: During this hearing for Johnson, Assistant Attorney General Miranda Loesch said people vouching for Johnson's innocence had credibility issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIRANDA LOESCH: At the end of this hearing, they're going to ask you to believe convicted murderers and gang members. And we are convinced that their evidence is not clear and convincing.

ROSENBAUM: Some legal experts say it makes sense for Missouri's attorney general to be a backstop when a prosecutor doesn't have a solid foundation for freeing someone from prison. But Washington University School of Law professor Peter Joy says this legal fight over Lamar Johnson is part of a broader battle over wrongful convictions and over how attorneys general see those cases.

PETER JOY: Even when there is proof of innocence, a lot of offices still stick with that kind of tunnel vision.

ROSENBAUM: A judge will decide whether Gardner's case is convincing enough to vacate Johnson's sentence, which would allow him to be released from prison. For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Since entering the world of professional journalism in 2006, Jason Rosenbaum dove head first into the world of politics, policy and even rock and roll music. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Rosenbaum spent more than four years in the Missouri State Capitol writing for the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri Lawyers Media and the St. Louis Beacon. Since moving to St. Louis in 2010, Rosenbaum's work appeared in Missouri Lawyers Media, the St. Louis Business Journal and the Riverfront Times' music section. He also served on staff at the St. Louis Beacon as a politics reporter. Rosenbaum lives in Richmond Heights with with his wife Lauren and their two sons.
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