ST. LOUIS (AP) — A Missouri judge on Tuesday overturned the conviction of a man who has served nearly 28 years of a life sentence for a killing that he has always said he didn't commit.
Lamar Johnson, 50, closed his eyes and shook his head slightly as a woman on his legal team patted him on the back when Circuit Judge David Mason issued his ruling.
Before announcing his decision, Mason said that in weighing the case, there had to be "reliable evidence of actual innocence — evidence so reliable that it actually passes the standard of clear and convincing."
A court official said after the hearing that Johnson would be "processed out" but should be available soon outside of the courthouse.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner filed a motion in August seeking Johnson's release, prompting a hearing in December before Mason.
"Today the courts righted a wrong – vacating the sentence of Mr. Lamar Johnson, following his wrongful conviction in 1995," Gardner said in a statement after Tuesday's hearing. "Most importantly, we celebrate with Mr. Johnson and his family as he walks out of the courtroom as a free man."
Gardner said she's "pleased that Mr. Johnson will have the opportunity to be the man and member of community that he desires."
The Missouri attorney general's office argued at the December hearing that Johnson should remain in prison.
Johnson was convicted of murder for the 1994 fatal shooting of Marcus Boyd. Police and prosecutors blamed the killing on a dispute over drug money. From the outset, Johnson maintained his innocence, saying he was with his girlfriend miles (kilometers) away when the crime occurred.
Gardner said an investigation conducted by her office with help from the Innocence Project convinced her that Johnson was telling the truth.
Boyd was shot to death on the front porch of his home by two men wearing ski masks on Oct. 30, 1994. While Johnson was convicted and sentenced to life, a second suspect, Phil Campbell, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in exchange for a seven-year prison term.
Johnson testified at the December hearing that he was with his girlfriend on the night of the crime, except for a few minutes when he stepped outside of the home of a friend to sell drugs on a corner several blocks from where the victim was killed.
"Did you kill Marcus Boyd?" an attorney asked.
"No, sir," Lamar Johnson responded.
Johnson's girlfriend at the time, Erika Barrow, testified that she was with Johnson that entire night, except for about a five-minute span when he left to make the drug sale. She said the distance between the friend's home and Boyd's home would have made it impossible for Johnson to get there and back in five minutes.
The case for Johnson's release was centered around a key witness who recanted his testimony and a prison inmate who says it was he — not Johnson — who joined Campbell in the killing.
James Howard, 46, is serving a life sentence for murder and several other crimes that happened three years after Boyd was killed. He testified at the hearing that he and Campbell decided to rob Boyd, who owed one of their friends money from the sale of drugs.
Howard testified that he shot Boyd in the back of the head and neck, and that Campbell shot Boyd in the side.
"Was Lamar Johnson there?" asked Jonathan Potts, an attorney for Johnson.
"No," Howard answered.
Howard and Campbell years ago signed affidavits admitting to the crime and claiming Johnson was not involved. Campbell has since died.
James Gregory Elking testified in December that he was on the front porch with Boyd, trying to buy crack cocaine, when the two gunmen wearing black ski masks came around the house and began the attack. Elking, who later spent several years in prison for bank robbery, initially told police he couldn't identify the gunmen.
He agreed to view a lineup anyway. Elking testified that when he was unable to name anyone from the lineup as a shooter, Detective Joseph Nickerson told him, "I know you know who it is," and urged him to "help get these guys off the street."
Saying he felt "bullied" and "pressured," Elking named Johnson as one of the shooters. Gardner's office said Elking was also paid at least $4,000 after agreeing to testify.
"It's been haunting me," he said of his role in sending Johnson to prison.
Nickerson denied coercing Elking. He testified in December that Elking's identification of Johnson was based on all that he could see of the shooter's face — his eyes. Johnson has one eye that looks different than the other, Nickerson said. "You can clearly see it."
Dwight Warren, who prosecuted Johnson in 1995, said that beyond Elking's testimony, the main evidence against Johnson was an overheard jail cell conversation. A jailhouse informant, William Mock, told investigators at the time that he heard Campbell and Johnson talking when one of them said, "We should have shot that white boy," apparently referring to Elking.
Warren acknowledged that convicting Johnson would have been "iffy" without Mock's testimony.
At the December hearing, Special Assistant to the Circuit Attorney Charles Weiss sought to raise credibility concerns about Mock, noting that he sought release from incarceration as a reward for aiding the case. He had been successful in getting probation after a similar jailhouse revelation years earlier in Kansas City, Missouri.
Nickerson described Johnson as a violent drug dealer who had been arrested in killings "probably three times" before Boyd's death, but was never convicted because witnesses wouldn't testify.
Judge Mason heard that, paused, then asked, "You sure this isn't a situation where you guys were in a little bit of a rush to make a conviction?"
"Not at all, Your Honor, not one bit," Nickerson responded.
In March 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court denied Johnson's request for a new trial after then-Attorney General Eric Schmitt's office argued successfully that Gardner lacked the authority to seek one so many years after the case was adjudicated.
The case led to the passage of a state law that makes it easier for prosecutors to get new hearings in cases where there is fresh evidence of a wrongful conviction. That law freed another longtime inmate, Kevin Strickland, last year. He had served more than 40 years for a Kansas City triple killing.