ST. LOUIS — The effort to get a new trial for a man who has spent nearly 25 years in prison for a murder he claims he didn’t commit is headed to the Missouri Supreme Court.
The Missouri Court of Appeals in the Eastern District on Tuesday referred the Lamar Johnson case to the state Supreme Court. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner has been seeking a new trial for Johnson, who was convicted in the 1994 killing of 25-year-old Marcus Boyd in an alleged drug dispute. But the Republican state attorney general's office has opposed the move, arguing that Gardner lacks the authority.
Gardner, a Democrat elected in 2016, has claimed she is duty bound to correct past wrongs, including what she believes is the wrongful conviction of Johnson, 46. But the appeals court ruled that the case should be determined by the state's highest court.
“The issues in this case are undeniably important and include questions fundamental to our criminal justice system,” the ruling stated.
Gardner questioned the ruling but said she looks forward to making her case to the state Supreme Court.
“To our knowledge, before this case, no court in the country had held that a prosecutor does not have the ability to free an innocent person from prison after prosecutorial misconduct has come to light,” Gardner said in a statement. “In other jurisdictions, including other jurisdictions in Missouri, when a prosecutor comes into court and says an innocent person is in prison, the court immediately grants relief. The court reached the opposite conclusion in this case after inviting the attorney general into the case — also a move unprecedented in the state of Missouri.”
A lawyer for the Attorney General Eric Schmitt's office told the appeals court earlier this month that Gardner has no authority to seek a new trial for Johnson. Assistant Attorney General Shaun Mackelprang said state law also bars Johnson from asking for a new trial all these years later.
Johnson was convicted of killing Boyd over a $40 drug debt and received a life sentence while another suspect, Phil Campbell, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in exchange for a seven-year prison term.
Johnson has long proclaimed his innocence. Gardner agreed with his alibi that he was with his girlfriend miles away when Boyd was killed. Meanwhile, years after the killing, the state's only witness recanted his identification of Johnson and Campbell as the shooters. Two other men have confessed to Boyd's killing and said Johnson was not involved.
Gardner asked for a new trial in July after investigating Johnson's case in collaboration with his lawyers at the Midwest Innocence Project. Gardner said there was misconduct by one of her office's former prosecutors, that secret payments were made to the witness, that police reports were falsified and that there was perjured testimony.
The former prosecutor and the detective who investigated the case have rejected Gardner's claims.
A circuit judge rejected Gardner's motion for a new trial, and she appealed to the appellate court.
Several advocates for Johnson delivered more than 25,000 petition signatures to Schmitt in early December. They accused police and prosecutors of zealousness in rushing to convict black suspects such as Johnson.
“While it is disappointing to have the appeals court dismiss Lamar Johnson’s request for a new trial, we are encouraged that the court has recognized the need for review,” Scott Roberts, senior director of criminal justice campaigns for Color of Change, a racial justice organization, said in a statement.