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A year after gaining freedom, Lamar Johnson sues over his time in prison

Lamar Johnson, a Black man wearing a blue tie and button down shirt, waves to the crowd while surrounded by media.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Lamar Johnson waves to the media in February 2023 after being released from custody at the Carnahan Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Johnson was freed after being convicted and jailed for nearly 30 years for a murder he did not commit.

A St. Louis man freed from prison last year after serving 28 years for a murder he did not commit has sued the city and the police officers who investigated the case.

The federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by lawyers for Lamar Johnson accuses several former St. Louis officers of fabricating the entire case against Johnson, in violation of his civil rights.

“This lawsuit is about accountability,” said Emma Freudenberger, a partner with a national civil rights firm and one of the attorneys on the case. “The defendant officers framed a young man with his life ahead of him. Even after the court declared his innocence, there have been no apologies and no consequences. The City of St. Louis cannot continue to simply ignore the glaring police misconduct that has caused Mr. Johnson and his family so much harm.”

Johnson had always denied he had anything to do with the slaying of Marcus Boyd, who was shot and killed in south St. Louis in 1994. But despite Johnson having an alibi, and another man later confessing to the crime, state and federal courts rejected his appeals.

Much of the conviction revolved around the account of an eyewitness who was later found to have been compensated and who ultimately recanted his testimony that Johnson was one of the killers.

Johnson’s case was among the first that former Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner reviewed when she took office in 2018. But higher courts rejected her efforts to seek a new trial. After a 2021 change to state law, Gardner tried again.

Circuit Judge David Mason heard evidence in the case over several days in December 2022. On Feb. 14, 2023, he freed Johnson from prison, ruling that the presentation “amounts to clear and convincing evidence that Lamar Johnson is innocent” of Boyd’s murder.

“The same evidence that proved Lamar Johnson’s innocence in the circuit court in 2023 was available at his criminal trial almost 30 years ago,” said Lindsay Runnels, an attorney who worked on Johnson’s case for years. “But it was hidden and ignored by those who saw no value in the lives of two young Black men from the South Side. It is time for the City of St. Louis to reckon with the harm it has caused Lamar Johnson and so many others.”

The lawsuit seeks both punitive damages and money to compensate Johnson for his years in prison. A loophole in Missouri law means he is not eligible for restitution from the state.

The city does not comment on pending litigation.

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