COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri Supreme Court judges convened a remote court hearing Tuesday to hear arguments over whether to grant a new trial for a man who has spent more than two decades in prison for a murder he and the St. Louis prosecutor claim he didn't commit.
At issue is 46-year-old Lamar Johnson's conviction in the 1994 killing of 25-year-old Marcus Boyd in an alleged drug dispute. Johnson has long maintained his innocence, and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner agrees. Attorneys for Johnson and Gardner on asked Supreme Court judges on Tuesday to send the case back to circuit court for a new trial so Gardner can present new evidence in his favor.
The judges convened remotely due to concerns about the coronavirus.
But Assistant Attorney General Shaun Mackelprang argued that only defendants can ask for new trials under Missouri law, and it's too late for Johnson to do so for a case that is decades old.
Mackleprang said as a matter of policy it's wrong for circuit attorneys, who he said play a broader role in seeking justice for the state, to advocate for individual defendants prosecuted by their predecessors.
"It calls into question into question everything that has gone before it, both by the judge that oversaw the proceedings (and) the jury that participated in the proceedings," Mackelprang said. "And it has the potential to undermine public confidence."
Johnson's attorney, Lindsay Runnels, called that a "dim view" of prosecutors.
"The criminal justice system exists to find the facts, and most of the time we do get that correct," Runnels said. "But sometimes we don't, and there's no state interest in the finality of a conviction that is wrong."
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 for Johnson after investigating his 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 has rejected Gardner's claims.
Missouri Supreme Court judges tend to issue rulings based on legal technicalities, which could favor the state attorney general's arguments in this case.
But attorneys for Johnson and Gardner asked the court to instead focus on what they describe as "manifest injustice" against Johnson.
"Procedural technicalities, if they exist, must always yield to the imperative of correcting a fundamentally unjust incarceration," Runnels said.
Judges did not indicate when they might rule.