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Man sentenced to life in prison walks free after Missouri judge vacates his conviction

Emily Curiel/The Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

(ST. LOUIS) — After serving nearly three decades of a life sentence, Lamar Johnson officially walks free for a crime he has always insisted he did not commit.

“This is unbelievable,” he told reporters in the courthouse lobby after the conviction was overturned.

On Tuesday, Missouri Circuit Judge David Mason vacated Johnson’s sentence, stating that there was convincing and reliable evidence of “actual innocence” to overturn the conviction.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, working in conjunction with the Innocence Project, filed a motion seeking Johnson’s release in August.

In 1994, Johnson was convicted of murder for the killing of Marcus Boyd, who was shot to death on his front porch by two masked men. Boyd’s death arose from a dispute over drug money, said police and prosecutors investigating the case. Johnson maintained his innocence from the beginning, citing his girlfriend as an alibi, and claimed he was with her miles away when the crime was committed.

Johnson also stated that he stepped outside for a few minutes to sell drugs on a corner several blocks from where the victim was killed, as reported by AP News.

The judge decided to revisit Johnson’s case after a key witness and prison inmate confessed to killing Boyd, affirming Johnson’s innocence.

James Howard, the key witness, admitted that he shot Boyd in the back of head and neck, while accompanying the second suspect Phil Campbell, who was sentenced to a seven-year term after pleading guilty.

Howard, who was never charged in the murder, is currently serving a life sentence for murder and other crimes which occurred years after Boyd was killed. During a weeklong hearing in December, Howard took the stand, again admitting that he and Campbell, who has since died, killed Boyd that night before St. Louis Circuit Attorney Gardner. Howard said he came forward because he felt guilty for putting Johnson in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Gardner is currently reviewing whether or not Howard should be charged with Boyd’s murder, as reported by the Kansas City Star.

Another man, James Gregory Elking, also testified saying he was on the front porch with Boyd when the two gunmen attacked. Initially, Elking testified that he couldn’t identify the gunmen, but was pressured to pick someone from a lineup of people. Elking named Johnson as one of the killers. He later recanted this testimony.

Johnson’s girlfriend Erika Barrow confirmed these details. Barrow testified that she was with Johnson the entire night, except during a brief five-minute period when he left to make a drug deal at a nearby house. Barrow noted that 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.

After the Missouri Supreme Court denied Johnson’s request for a new trial in March 2021 – stating Gardner lacked authority to seek one – a state law was passed to make it easier for prosecutors to get new hearings.

The law helped free Kevin Strickland, another longtime inmate who had been imprisoned for more than 40 years due to a Kansas City triple murder.

A statement from Johnson’s legal team read: “While today brings joy, nothing can restore all that the State stole from him. Nothing will give him back the nearly three decades he lost while separated from his daughters and family.”

Johnson said he plans to reconnect with his family and enjoy experiences he says he was unjustly denied for nearly 30 years while in prison.

Johnson’s lawyers said the state attorney general was content with the initial conviction, disregarding Johnson’s plea for innocence.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general defended his actions, but said he will honor the judge’s decision.

“As he stated when he was sworn in, Attorney General Bailey is committed to enforcing the laws as written. Our office defended the rule of law and worked to uphold the original verdict that a jury of Johnson’s peers deemed to be appropriate based on the facts presented at trial,” said AG Bailey’s press secretary Madeline Sieren in a statement.

“The court has spoken, and no further action will be taken in this case.”

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