Justice delayed is indeed justice denied. Lamar Johnson has seen justice delayed for more than a quarter of a century, and to this day and in the foreseeable future, he will experience justice denied.
In October 1994, Marcus Byrd and James Gregory Elking were sitting on Byrd’s front porch in St. Louis, Missouri, when two ski-masked men approached and gunned down Byrd. Elking was not harmed. He later identified Lamar Johnson as one of the gunmen after the police agreed to pay him $4,000 to cooperate against Johnson. Johnson has always strenuously maintained his innocence.
In 2017, Kimberly Gardner was elected as the first Black American woman to head the St. Louis prosecutor’s office. She promised police reform and has consistently faced off with the city’s police union as she fights to hold police accountable for their unlawful actions.
In a March 2021 appearance on “60 Minutes,” Gardner spoke the truth about the criminal justice system when she said:
“It’s about the will of the people. After the people of St. Louis overwhelmingly voted me in to do my job to reform a system that we all know is beyond repair. It needs to be dismantled and rebuilt.”
Massive Prosecutorial and Police Misconduct
In 2018, Johnson’s attorneys presented their client’s case to Gardner, requesting that she assign her integrity conviction unit to reexamine his conviction. That review uncovered massive prosecutorial and police misconduct – evidence that overwhelmingly showed that the prosecutor and the police framed Johnson for Marcus Byrd’s murder.
In response to this investigation, Gardner’s office and Johnson’s attorneys filed a joint 66-page motion for a new trial in July 2019 that presented overwhelming evidence of Johnson’s actual innocence. That motion named Phillip Campbell and James Howard as the true killers.
In response to this motion, Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Hogan appointed Missouri Attorney Eric Schmitt to represent the state’s interest in the case. Attorney General Schmitt submitted a brief to the court arguing that Missouri law does not permit a circuit judge to review, much less set aside, a wrongful conviction.
Legal Procedures to Free Wrongfully Convicted are Very Limited
In response to the Attorney General’s brief, 43 local and national prosecutors filed a “friend of the court” brief arguing that a trial court always has the authority to review and, yes, reverse a wrongful conviction.
In August 2019, Judge Hogan denied the motion for a new trial, finding that the evidence of a wrongful conviction came 24 years too late. Gardner’s office immediately appealed Judge Hogan’s ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court. In March 2021, in a stunning and highly disturbing unanimous decision, the state high court upheld Judge Hogan’s ruling. The Court’s Chief Justice concluded that the Missouri Legislature could remedy the issue by passing a law allowing circuit judges to review wrongful conviction claims when newly discovered evidence demonstrates actual innocence.
Procedure Blocks Justice in Wrongful Convictions
Such legislation will not likely happen, at least anytime soon. Unfortunately, Missouri is not a state either friendly or receptive to addressing wrongful conviction claims.
A 2020 Injustice Watch investigation found that since 2000 the Attorney General’s Office has opposed calls for relief in virtually every wrongful conviction case handled by that office, including 27 cases in which the inmates were eventually exonerated.
Keeping innocent people in prison has become so routine in Missouri that its highest court, the Missouri Supreme Court, doesn’t even bother to explain when the court refuses to hear an actual innocence case.
Take, for example, the case of 62-year-old Kevin Strickland, who has served nearly 44 years for a crime he did not commit. That is the position of Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker who has worked tirelessly with Strickland’s attorneys and attorneys with the Midwest Innocence Project to exonerate the man.
Strickland and two other men were convicted of a drug-related triple murder. Strickland vehemently denied any involvement in the crime, faced a jury, and was convicted. He was 18 years of age at the time. The two other men pled guilty and have always maintained that Strickland had nothing to do with the crime. The lone witness against Strickland has repeatedly tried to recant her testimony and identification.
Prosecutor Baker has consistently told the courts that the evidence used against the teenager at his trial has been “eviscerated.” Joining the effort, federal prosecutors, the presiding judge of Jackson County, the Kansas City Mayor, and members of the prosecution team who convicted Strickland have all joined exoneration efforts in the Strickland case in the federal district court of the Western District of Missouri.
If, or when, Strickland is finally freed, he will become the longest-serving exonerated person in Missouri.
Missouri is living up to its mule-headed “Show Me” mantra. It is morally reprehensible and an affront to all concepts of justice and decency to use legal maneuvering to prevent reopening cases that would free people from wrongful convictions and incarceration. It is no wonder the general public has such little respect for the criminal “justice” system.
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