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Lamar Johnson case prompts increased focus on restitution for exonerated Missourians

Lamar Johnson after he was released from prison on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, outside Maggie O’Briens in Downtown West. Johnson was wrongfully convicted for a murder he did not commit and subsequently served nearly 30 years in prison. “New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings and that's the way I've got to look at life,” he said. “I’m happy to have my life back and I'm gonna try to make the best of it.”
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Lamar Johnson after he was released from prison on Tuesday. Johnson was wrongfully convicted of murder for a slaying he did not commit and served nearly 30 years in prison.

Hours after Lamar Johnson walked out of a St. Louis courthouse a free man, he was pessimistic about getting restitution from the state for being locked up in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason ruled Tuesday that Johnson should be freed from prison, because there was clear and convincing evidence he did not kill Marcus Boyd in 1994. Mason found that, among other things, two people who testified at a December hearing were credible in clearing Johnson of the crime.

But since DNA evidence wasn’t used to set aside his conviction, Johnson is not eligible for state restitution. And some Missouri lawmakers say that Johnson’s plight should prompt lawmakers to re-examine how people who are wrongfully convicted should be compensated.

“We should have some way of saying we're sorry,” said state Rep. LaKeySha Bosley, D-St. Louis.

Several of Bosley’s Democratic colleagues also called for changes in restitution shortly after Mason set Johnson free.

Last month, House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, filed legislation that would allow people who were convicted of crimes and then declared cleared of them by methods other than DNA evidence to receive $100 for each day of post-conviction incarceration.

“Mr. Johnson and other Missourians deemed innocent after serving time deserve nothing less than Missouri’s best efforts to right the wrongs the state has inflicted,” Quade said.

While emphasizing that financial compensation cannot replace the time lost for people who were wrongfully convicted, Bosley said expanding the use of restitution would be an act of good faith from Missouri.

“We can't give people back time. They deserve that time back. But we're not God,” Bosley said. “But we can restore them. We can try to turn back the hands of the clock by giving them restitution in the format of financial assistance, housing, education and all-around wraparound services.”

Washington University School of Law professor Peter Joy said Johnson’s case should make state lawmakers reexamine when restitution for wrongfully convicted people should be doled out. But he added that the amount someone could get would need to be substantial.

“They would have to come up with an amount that seems to be reasonable enough to fairly compensate somebody,” Joy said. “Although, it’s hard to think of fair compensation if someone spends time in prison.”

It’s still possible, Joy said, that Johnson’s attorney could file a civil lawsuit. But that could take years to resolve, and it’s possible that Johnson may end up with nothing.

St. Louis NAACP President Adolphus Pruitt also backs changing restitution rules for those wrongly convicted to include cases like Johnson's.

"The world has changed so much around him since then. It's the equivalent of bringing an infant into the world now, and now they have to fend for themselves," he said. "Thank God he has family and relatives to help him but the bottom line is, as an adult, he shouldn't have to rely on other folks and the state should be held responsible for it."

Kim Gardner, St Louis Circuit Attorney, addresses the media after Lamar Johnson was released after being wrongfully convicted and jailed for nearly 30 years on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, at the Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Kim Gardner, St Louis circuit attorney, addresses the media after Lamar Johnson was released after being wrongfully convicted and jailed for nearly 30 years on Tuesday.

Setting a precedent

Joy said Tuesday’s ruling is a good omen for the law that allows prosecutors to pursue wrongful conviction cases.

The Missouri legislature passed a law in 2021 that allowed St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner to seek Johnson’s release from prison. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker used the statute to absolve Kevin Strickland on murder charges.

Gardner hasn’t said whether she planned to use that law to free more people. But Joy said it’s a “very strong possibility.”

“If there are other cases that the conviction integrity unit has identified as being strong cases, I would think that we'll see some activity here shortly,” Joy said.

Joy said prosecutors like Gardner will have to be prepared to spend considerable time on individual cases, especially if the attorney general’s office is going to vigorously contest efforts to release people from prison. That’s what happened in the Strickland and Johnson cases.

“Instead of filing two or three at the same time, it might be one at a time because of everything that's involved to be able to mount the kind of case,” Joy said.

Reporter Chad Davis contributed to this report.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.