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Missouri Supreme Court Weighs Method To Reverse Wrongful Convictions

Jamala Rogers, far left, the executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle, helps deliver petitions supporting a new trial for Lamar Johnson to Attorney General Eric Schmitt on Dec. 10, 2019.
File photo | Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Activists deliver petitions supporting a new trial for Lamar Johnson to Attorney General Eric Schmitt on Dec. 10, 2019. The state Supreme Cout heard arguments in Johnson's case on Tuesday.

The Missouri Supreme Court is considering whether prosecutors have the power to try to fix what they believe are wrongful convictions in decades-old cases.

The judges heard oral arguments Tuesday in the case of Lamar Johnson, who, in 1995, was sentenced to life in prison without parole for first-degree murder. Last year, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner filed a motion for a new trial, arguing Johnson’s conviction was tainted by police and prosecutorial misconduct.

“A prosecutor, as minister of justice, has some obligation when she uncovers evidence of a wrongful conviction,” said Daniel Harawa, an attorney for Gardner. “The way the attorney general would have it, a prosecutor would simply have to turn that evidence over to an incarcerated defendant and then walk away. But as a minister of justice, a prosecutor has an obligation to seek justice.” 

Lower courts have rejected Gardner’s efforts, saying she filed the motion years past a long-established 15-day deadline. There are also questions about whether she has the authority to file such a motion, which is usually made by the defendant in a case.

“I agree completely that prosecutors are bound by the ethical rules, the laws and the Constitution of the state to act fairly and to seek justice,” said Shaun Mackelprang with the attorney general’s office. “But ministers of justice also act within the bounds of the law. They respect and trust the law and its processes, and they act within their ordained role without regard to their personal interests.”

The case marks a rare instance where prosecutors and attorneys for the defendant are in agreement, which is why the attorney general was involved.

“Innocence is the ultimate equity,” said Lindsay Runnels, an attorney with the Midwest Innocence Project, which has represented Johnson for years. “The procedural technicalities as they exist must always yield to the imperative of correcting a fundamentally unjust incarceration. That is a principle that this court has reaffirmed.”

Johnson unsuccessfully appealed his convictions at the state and federal levels. Gardner filed documents with a St. Louis judge in July saying her new Conviction Integrity Unit found evidence of misconduct in Johnson’s case. Prosecutors 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.

A ruling in the Supreme Court case will come at a later date. A decision in Gardner’s favor does not mean Johnson, who is currently incarcerated at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, would be freed immediately.

The hearing was the first held by the Supreme Court under state guidelines that prohibit more than 10 people from gathering in one place because of the coronavirus pandemic. Chief Justice George Draper was the only judge in the courtroom in Jefferson City — the other six judges and the attorneys participated remotely. 

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

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.