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Judge Thwarts Gardner’s Attempt To Get A New Trial For Man Convicted Of Murder

Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner details her hopes for St. Louis after taking the oath of office on Jan. 6, 2017.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, shown here at her swearing-in in 2017, will appeal a judge's decision that she cannot ask for a new trial for a man who she believes was wrongfully convicted of murder.

A St. Louis judge has ruled that Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner does not have the authority to ask for a new trial in the case of a man Gardner says was wrongfully convicted of murder.

Judge Elizabeth Hogan’s opinion, issued Friday, also says Gardner’s request in the case of Lamar Johnson was filed well beyond deadlines outlined in court rules and decisions. 

A spokeswoman said Gardner will appeal the ruling, and had no further comment.

A jury found Johnson guilty of murder and armed criminal action in 1995, a decision he unsuccessfully appealed at the state and federal levels. He’s been a client of the Midwest Innocence Project, which works with defendants who say they have been wrongfully convicted of crimes, since 2010.

Last month, Gardner’s office filed documents with the court saying her new Conviction Integrity Unit found evidence of police and prosecutorial misconduct in Johnson’s case. Attorneys asked for permission to reopen the case, likely so they could decide not to hold a second trial. That would have allowed Johnson to go free.

Hogan had been skeptical of Gardner’s right to ask for a new trial from the beginning, and her opinion rejects all of the arguments the circuit attorney raised. She noted that while Gardner referenced prosecutors in other states who have worked to free innocent defendants, “the Circuit Attorney fails to point out that other states may have statutory authority for such action while the Missouri General Assembly has failed to pass such enabling legislation for circuit courts.”

Gardner’s predecessor, Jennifer Joyce, said she believed that the ruling was legally correct but that the situation was a “black hole” that needed to be fixed.

Hogan’s opinion also raised questions about Gardner’s conduct in asking for the new trial. The Innocence Project, she said, interviewed and obtained sworn statements from three of the jurors in Johnson’s original trial, a move that goes against court rulings. While Gardner did not play a role in getting those statements, Hogan said, she used information from them when asking for a new trial, and then released them to the national media. 

“This conduct has caused the Court to be concerned about the integrity of the legal process,” Hogan wrote.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.