Missouri - A Missouri judge has denied a petition for a new trial for a man held in prison for 24 years - even though St. Louis' top prosecutor now says the man is innocent and has conceded her office engaged in serious misconduct to win his conviction.
The judge's reason: Prosecutors missed the deadline to file the motion by "approximately 24 years." Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan said court rules required the defendant, Lamar Johnson, to file his motion for a new trial within 15 days of his conviction, even though the prosecutors only uncovered new evidence supporting his innocence in recent years.
The Friday ruling is a blow to St. Louis' new conviction integrity unit, which, like similar offices founded in other large U.S. cities in recent years, was set up to uncover past injustices. Prosecutors nationwide had urged Hogan to grant St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner's motion for a new trial, saying they were "troubled" by the judge's focus on a timeliness rule over the seriousness of the misconduct and evidence of innocence that the unit had found.
But Hogan was not swayed.
The ruling leaves Johnson, 45, serving life without the possibility of parole for the murder of Marcus Boyd - a sentence Gardner says prosecutors in 1995 obtained with fabricated evidence and after making secret payments to the sole eyewitness, who later recanted his testimony.
Johnson's attorney, Lindsay Runnels, told The Washington Post that she and the Midwest Innocence Project planned to appeal the order. She argued that the court ignored previous rulings that have waived the 15-day deadline in the face of extraordinary circumstances and in the interest of justice. Gardner's office also plans to appeal, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
"On so many levels, it's a real interesting decision," Runnels said. "There's not a single word in it about Lamar Johnson's innocence or the claims of his innocence. This is what we should expect prosecutors to do in the face of injustice. Instead, [the court] is telling Lamar Johnson there's no remedy for him. I don't think that can be the state of the law."
Gardner's office asked for a new trial last month after releasing an investigative report that revealed staggering alleged misconduct on the part of police and prosecutors.
Johnson was convicted of fatally shooting the 25-year-old Boyd in 1995. Prosecutors acknowledged his alibi, that he was socialising with friends at an apartment. But they said he committed the murder when he stepped outside, claiming Johnson travelled three miles to Boyd's front porch, shot him, fled on foot and arrived back at the apartment - all in "no more than five minutes."
They convinced a jury, the CIU found, because police invented statements and pressured the sole eyewitness into identifying Johnson as the shooter. The state also paid more than $4 000 (about R60 000) to the eyewitness for his cooperation, reportedly for housing and moving expenses. The witness recanted his testimony in 2003. Police also invented testimony about the alleged motive from four people, all of whom later told investigators that they never gave those statements to a detective, according to the CIU report.
"The violation of Johnson's constitutional rights enabled the State of Missouri to obtain a conviction and sentence of life without the possibility of parole against Johnson despite overwhelming evidence of innocence," the circuit attorney's office wrote. "The undisclosed secret payments to the sole eyewitness in a case that was undeniably thin fatally undermines the reliability of the verdict."
In deciding whether to grant Johnson a new trial, Hogan consulted the state attorney general's office - saying she was concerned about whether Gardner's office had a "conflict of interest" in accusing its own former prosecutors of misconduct. She considered the attorney general to be a more impartial third party. The attorney general advised that she did not have authority to grant the new trial, based on the strict 15-day deadline rule.
But Runnels argued Hogan's concern over a "conflict of interest" was unusual, and her consultation with the attorney general was unnecessary. In a friend-of-the-court brief, 43 elected prosecutors warned Hogan that viewing Gardner's efforts to illuminate her office's past misconduct as a "conflict of interest" would undermine the ethical duty to correct wrongful convictions. They cited a 1984 Missouri appeals court ruling that said a "perversion of justice" would occur if "we were to close our eyes to the existence of the newly discovered evidence" solely because of a missed deadline.
"When the existence of a wrongful conviction becomes clear, an obligation arises to intervene and halt the continued incarceration of an individual previously prosecuted by that office," the prosecutors wrote in the brief. "As a duly elected minister of justice, a prosecutor's obligation to correct a known injustice never terminates. And because that obligation never terminates, neither does the prosecutor's right to pursue an appropriate remedy in court, as the Circuit Attorney has done here."
Hogan said she recognised that other conviction integrity units nationwide have been able to overturn wrongful convictions, but believed the Missouri General Assembly had not passed laws providing the state's CIUs the ability to waive procedural rules.
Runnels said the legal defense team was prepared to argue to an appeals court that Hogan's reasoning was flawed. Hogan did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"The narrative surrounding time limits, nonexistent conflicts, and who can file what document in what court only serve to distract from what matters in this case," Runnels said. "Lamar Johnson is innocent. The evidence is overwhelming. The State agrees. That should be enough."