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Missouri legislators seek to expand law providing restitution for wrongful convictions

Lamar Johnson speaks to the media on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, after being released from custody at the Carnahan Courthouse — a part of Missouri’s 22nd Judicial Circuit — in downtown St. Louis. Johnson was released after being convicted and jailed for nearly 30 years for a murder he did not commit.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Lamar Johnson speaks to the media last week after being released from custody at the Mel Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Johnson was released after being convicted and jailed for nearly 30 years for a murder he did not commit.

Lamar Johnson was exonerated less than a week ago after serving three decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

He walked out of prison with little more than the clothes on his back.

“Having been home just a few days, the difficulties of starting a new life after a wrongful conviction are fresh in my mind,” Johnson testified Monday during a hearing of the Missouri Senate Judiciary Committee.

“After losing 28 years, I’m ecstatic to be free and grateful to everyone involved in freeing me,” Johnson said. “But while I have regained my freedom, I have come out with nothing but the clothes purchased for me by my friends and my attorneys. I return home free, but with no ID, no driver’s license, no credit history, no work history, no rental history. I have no car, no furniture. No place to call home.”

In a little over a year, local prosecutors have twice used a new Missouri law to free innocent men who served decades in prison.

Kevin Strickland was exonerated in December 2021 after 42 years behind bars. Johnson was set free last week after serving 28 years.

But both men received no compensation from the state for the years they lost. That’s because Missouri law only allows for payments to prisoners who prove their innocence through specific DNA testing — which was not the case for either man, and severely limits the types of cases where the wrongfully convicted can receive restitution.

On Monday, a handful of men freed from prison in Missouri after long sentences for crimes they didn’t commit testified in support of legislation that would expand the types of wrongful convictions that would be eligible for restitution.

“No one should be punished for a crime they did not commit,” said Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City. “That is not justice. It’s even worse to imagine that after spending an extended period in prison for a wrongful conviction, our state does not allow for compensation to be awarded to an individual without an exoneration based on DNA evidence.”

The legislation — sponsored by Williams and Sen. Steve Roberts, D-St. Louis — would allow a claim for damages to be filed within two years of being freed from prison. A judge can order payment of $179 per day for each day of imprisonment, capped at $65,000 per fiscal year. The restitution would be made as a combination of an initial payment not to exceed $100,000 or 25% of the award, whichever is greater. The remainder of the damages would be paid as an annuity not to exceed $80,000 per year.

The law would be similar to one approved by Kansas lawmakers in 2018.

Ricky Kidd was exonerated in August 2019 after spending 23 years in prison. He told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday that during his time in prison, “I lost a lot.”

“I feel that the future was torn from me when I was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole,” he said, “even though I had an alibi and even though there was evidence pointing to the real perpetrators of the crime.”

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3

Kidd said he “never got a penny from the state that wrongfully imprisoned me. Even though the state of Missouri took away decades of my prime earning years.”

Williams noted that most wrongfully convicted people spend years behind bars fighting to prove their innocence. Upon release, he said, they face a number of immediate challenges, “such as obtaining housing, transportation, healthcare and other basic needs.”

Often, he said, the wrongfully convicted have less assistance transitioning home than those who are guilty of crimes when they are released, due to post-release services through parole.

“Wrongfully imprisoned exonerees… often missed out on critical economic benchmarks such as attending college, investing earnings, buying a home, creating retirement accounts and contributing to Social Security,” Williams said.

No one testified against the legislation Monday. In addition to those exonerated and freed from prison, the bill also garnered support from several organizations, including the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

In lieu of compensation from the state, exonerees often must rely on charity.

When Strickland was released from prison in 2021, The Midwest Innocence Project set up the GoFundMe page that raised $1.7 million.

Strickland always maintained he was home watching television and had nothing to do with the murders that sent him to prison when he was 18. The key witness eventually recanted her testimony, and no physical evidence ever tied Strickland to the crime scene.

A similar GoFundMe page for Johnson has raised $520,000 as of Monday afternoon.

Like Strickland, Johnson always maintained his innocence of the 1995 murder that sent him to prison. The only thing that tied Johnson to the murder was an eye witness that recanted their testimony on the witness stand during a December innocence trial in St. Louis. Another man confessed to the murder and testified that Johnson wasn’t involved.

Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, praised the exonerated individuals and their families for testifying Monday.

“What has happened to you is an egregious miscarriage of justice,” she said, “and you all deserve restitution for that miscarriage of justice. Not only what has happened to you, but what has happened to your family, because while you were in there, I’m sure your family had to sustain you.”

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent, part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence.

Jason Hancock is a reporter covering politics and policy for The Missouri Independent.