JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The effort to free a man who spent the past 26 years in prison for a crime he insists he didn’t commit will see a renewed interest this month as a new Missouri law goes into effect that would allow prosecutors to overturn or revisit wrongful convictions.
Lamar Johnson was accused of the Oct. 1994 murder of Marcus Boyd in an apparent drug deal gone bad. Johnson was 20-years old at the time of the crime. He was convicted in 1995 on the testimony of one eyewitness.
However, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s conviction integrity unit found dozens of errors in the original prosecution, including that key witness saying police forced him to identify Johnson as the killer.
In Nov. 2019, appealed Johnson’s conviction. More than 100 legal scholars and 34 prosecutors filed briefs in support of Gardner’s efforts to secure a new trial for Johnson. The Missouri Supreme Court denied the motion and refused to grant Johnson a new trial in March 2021.
In July 2021, Johnson and Kevin Strickland were the subjects of a report on CBS Sunday Morning detailing the quest to have both men set free from prison for murders they may not have committed.
Two other men allegedly confessed to the killing in Johnson’s case, in an Aug. 2021 report from NBC News.
Over the course of the summer, the Missouri Legislature debated and eventually passed a crime bill containing a “motion to vacate or set aside the verdict” of an individual if a prosecutor finds reason to revisit their case.
The office of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt previously argued that Gardner lacked the authority to seek a new trial so many years after the case was tried.
You can read the new law in its entirety as it appears in Missouri Senate Bill 53. Gov. Parson signed the bill into law on July 14. According to a report from St. Louis Public Radio, the law goes into effect on Aug. 28.
MOTION TO VACATE OR SET ASIDE THE VERDICT (Section 547.031)
This act provides that a prosecuting or circuit attorney may file a motion to vacate or set aside the judgment at any time if he or she has information that the convicted person may be innocent or may have been erroneously convicted. The circuit court in which the person was convicted shall have jurisdiction and authority to consider, hear, and decide the motion. Upon the filing of such a motion, the court shall order a hearing and issue findings of fact and conclusions of law on all issues presented. The Attorney General shall be given notice of hearing of much a motion and shall be permitted to appear, question witnesses, and make arguments in the hearing.
This act provides that the court shall grant the motion of the prosecuting or circuit attorney to vacate or set aside the judgment where the court finds that there is clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence or constitutional error at the original trial or plea that undermines the confidence in the judgment. In considering the motion, the court shall take into consideration the evidence presented at the original trial or plea; the evidence presented at any direct appeal or post-conviction proceedings; and the information and evidence presented at the hearing on the motion.
The prosecuting attorney, circuit attorney, or the defendant shall have the authority and right to file and maintain an appeal of the denial or disposal of such a motion. The Attorney General shall also have the right to intervene in any appeal filed by the prosecuting or circuit attorney or the defendant.
These provisions are identical to provisions in SCS/SB 440 (2021).Missouri Senate Bill 53