On Wednesday, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner filed a motion to vacate or set aside Johnson’s judgment. He’s been in prison for 27 years, despite numerous appeals asserting his innocence.
“We are hopeful that the court will hear our motion and correct this manifest injustice on behalf of Mr. Johnson to strengthen the integrity of our criminal justice system,” Gardner’s office said in a statement.
In 2018, Gardner received federal funding to start a conviction integrity unit. Johnson was the unit’s first case, and after a year-long investigation, Gardner sought a new trial for Johnson by filing a motion with Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Hogan in 2019.
Gardner’s office brought new evidence, including that the only eyewitness in Johnson’s case may have been paid more than $4,000 to choose Johnson out of a line up.
The Missouri Independent reports the case against Johnson rested on a jailhouse informant, who Gardner argues had agreed to testify against Johnson in exchange for favors that were largely undisclosed by prosecutors during the trial.
After the first motion three years ago, Judge Hogan questioned whether Gardner had the authority to bring Johnson a new trial. She referred to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who concurred that prosecutors did not have the authority to order new trials. Schmitt brought this argument all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, which ultimately denied Johnson a new trial.
However, a new law enacted last August allows prosecutors to correct wrongful convictions. It has led to one release so far; Kevin Strickland was released from prison in November after serving the longest prison term for a wrongful conviction in Missouri history.
Activists gathered outside the 22nd Judicial Circuit Court's building in St. Louis on Monday to call on Gardner to leverage the new law for Johnson.
Michelle Smith, founder and director of Missouri Justice Coalition, said Thursday she was elated and thankful to see Gardner had filed a motion to vacate Johnson’s judgment.
“Lamar is one of the sweetest, shyest and most compassionate people I’ve ever known,” Smith tells the RFT. “He has not only suffered because he has been unjustly imprisoned and wrongfully convicted for over 27 years as an innocent person, he has also suffered due to being accused and convicted of killing a close friend.”
Gardner’s motion states that the circuit attorney “cannot, and will not, turn a blind eye to the conviction of an innocent person.”
“As an advocate and friend, I will continue to speak out and stand up for Lamar’s innocence, freedom and decades-long denial of justice, I hope others in our community will do the same,” Smith says.