ST. LOUIS -- Advocates for a Missouri man imprisoned for nearly 25 years for a murder he claims he didn't commit are stepping up their efforts to free him, starting with the delivery Tuesday of petitions urging the state attorney general to stop blocking a new trial.
Lamar Johnson was convicted of fatally shooting 25-year-old Marcus L. Boyd in 1994 in what prosecutors called a drug dispute. He has been imprisoned since his conviction in 1995.
But in July, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, in collaboration with the Midwest Innocence Project, issued a report that said police pressured the only eyewitness in the case to implicate Johnson, even though two shooters wore masks. The witness recanted his identification in 2003.
Leaders of several civil rights groups delivered more than 25,000 petition signatures to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's St. Louis office. Leaders of the Missouri NAACP, Color of Change and the Organization for Black Struggle, along with Johnson's daughter and two former Missouri inmates recently exonerated after serving lengthy sentences, spoke at a news conference, calling for Johnson to be freed.
Brittany Johnson, 26, lamented the fact that she had to grow up without her father. “He needs to come home now to be with his family,” she said.
Lamar Johnson's co-defendant, Philip Campbell, and another man, James Howard, who confessed to participating in Boyd's death, have signed affidavits saying Johnson was not involved. Campbell was sentenced to a seven-year prison term for voluntary manslaughter. Howard was never charged.
A brief filed by more than 100 legal scholars, including law professors from Stanford and Harvard, supports Gardner's effort, and nearly three-dozen prosecutors also filed a brief in support of a new trial.
But Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan ruled in August that Gardner’s claims were inconclusive and that she didn’t have authority to grant Johnson a new trial. Johnson appealed Hogan’s ruling and a hearing is scheduled for Wednesday before the Missouri Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
Hogan appointed Schmitt to represent the state after noting a potential conflict because Gardner is accusing her own office of misconduct by declaring that she believes Johnson was wrongly convicted.
Schmitt’s spokesman, Chris Nuelle, said in a statement that the involvement of the attorney general’s office “is ensuring the correct procedure is followed and the rule of law is upheld — we’re not here to comment on innocence or guilt. That can be decided by the proper court, in the proper venue, following proper procedure.”
Nuelle said Johnson has filed multiple court petitions over the years, all of which have been denied.
“If he has new evidence that he wishes to present, he may file another petition in the proper court and make his case,” Nuelle said.
Ricky Kidd was freed from the Potosi Correctional Center in August after serving more than 20 years for a murder that a judge ruled he didn't commit. He recalled meeting Johnson in the prison yard years ago, when Johnson told him, “I know everybody says it, but I'm actually innocent."
“I turned to him because we had not talked about our case, and I said, ‘Well, I know everybody says it, but I’m also innocent," Kidd said.
The two became friends and often worked together at the same prison library table, writing letters to lawyers, “hoping that someday they would hear our cry," Kidd said. Eventually the Innocence Project took up Kidd’s case, then Johnson’s.
“We made a pact to each other: Whoever made it first would come back and get the other,” Kidd said.