A Missouri man who has spent the past 28 years in prison had his murder conviction overturned on Tuesday.
Lamar Johnson, 50, was convicted of the October 1994 murder of Marcus Boyd, who had been shot and killed on his front porch by two masked men, the Associated Press reported. Johnson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, while the second suspect, Phil Campbell, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and served just seven years.
Yet Johnson has always maintained that he was miles away from the shooting with his girlfriend at the time. He said he was only away from her for about five minutes to sell drugs on a street corner.
His girlfriend at the time, Erika Barrow, backed up his story. She said it would have been impossible for him to get to Boyd’s home from the friend’s house where they were staying when the murder occurred in the time it took him to step outside for the drug sale.
Helping Johnson’s case was the fact that a witness recanted their testimony and another prison inmate admitted to the killing. James Howard, 46, is already in prison for murder and other crimes committed years after Boyd’s death. He testified at Johnson’s hearing that he had committed Boyd’s murder with Campbell and that Johnson wasn’t present.
It wasn’t the first time Howard admitted to committing the murder. He and Campbell previously had signed affidavits admitting to the crime and swearing Johnson wasn’t with them, the AP reported.
A witness during the original investigation, James Gregory Elking, said he was on the porch with Boyd when he was shot but couldn’t identify the gunmen. Elking testified in December that he agreed to a police lineup, but when he couldn’t identify a suspect, police detective Joseph Nickerson told him: “I know you know who it is.”
Elking testified that he felt “bullied” and “pressured” into naming someone, so he named Johnson. Elking was reportedly paid $4,000 for his testimony.
Nickerson denied any pressure was put on Elking, testifying in December that the witness’ identification of Johnson was based on his eyes.
With this and other evidence, Circuit Judge David Mason ruled Tuesday that “reliable evidence of actual innocence — evidence so reliable that it actually passes the standard of clear and convincing” was needed to overturn Johnson’s conviction and that the bar had been met.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s office had conducted the investigation, along with the Innocence Project, into whether Johnson was innocent of the murder.
“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’s attorneys said after the ruling. “The evidence that proved his innocence was available at his trial, but it was kept hidden or ignored by those who saw no value in the lives of two young black men from the South Side.”
The Missouri Attorney General’s office opposed Johnson’s release, but didn’t challenge it.