After nearly 30 years in prison, man exonerated of murder charges in Missouri

After nearly 30 years in prison, man exonerated of murder charges in Missouri

MISSOURI, UNITED STATES — Lamar Johnson, a man from Missouri who has been serving a life sentence for nearly three decades, was set free on 15 February 2023, after a judge ruled that he is innocent and vacated his murder conviction.

According to a report by CNN, Johnson was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1995 after being convicted of murder in the death of Markus Boyd the year prior. Police at the time said that Johnson and another man, Phillip Campbell, shot and killed Boyd.

However, Johnson was given a new hearing after St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner filed a motion last year saying that his conviction was based in large part on false eyewitness testimony and accusing prosecutors and investigators of misconduct.

During the five-day court hearing held in December 2022, James Howard, who was one of the two men accused of the murder alongside Johnson, testified that he and Campbell shot Boyd over a drug dispute, the judge’s order says. Howard signed a sworn affidavit confessing to involvement in Boyd’s murder, while Campbell served less than six years for the killing, one of Johnson’s attorneys has said.

The hearing also revealed that the sole eyewitness at Johnson’s trial, James Elking, had recanted his testimony, and that prosecutors had withheld evidence that would have undermined Elking’s trial testimony. Evidence presented during the hearing showed that police interfered with Elking’s initial identification, with Elking saying during the proceedings that he felt pressured to pick someone out of a lineup.

Missouri Circuit Court Judge David Mason ruled on Tuesday that Johnson’s trial included “constitutional error” and said that “there is clear and convincing evidence of Lamar Johnson’s actual innocence,” according to the judge’s order. Johnson appeared to tear up in the courtroom as Mason announced his decision. He smiled broadly as he left the courthouse but declined to speak to reporters.

Dwight Warren, the lead prosecutor of the original case, told CNN in 2019 that the witness “may have been compensated out of fear for his life and we may have relocated him, but this was 25 years ago, and I cannot tell you with certainty.” The new hearing determined that prosecutors had paid Elking more than $4,000 in “witness compensation” before the trial, which was not disclosed at the time, the judge’s order says.

“This is an amazing day that we showed that the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri is about justice and not defending the finality of a conviction,” Gardner said following the ruling.

The Midwest Innocence Project, which has provided legal support to Johnson, says he is not eligible to seek any compensation for his imprisonment under state law. The group established a GoFundMe page to help start his new life outside prison, saying Johnson “will enter the free world with no resources to begin his new life outside of prison walls.”

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