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Lamar Johnson’s Lawyers To File For Habeas Corpus After Supreme Court Loss

Jamala Rogers, far left, the executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle, delivers 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
Jamala Rogers, far left, executive director of the Organization for Black Struggle, delivers petitions supporting a new trial for Lamar Johnson to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt in 2019.

Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court dealt another blow to advocates seeking to free Lamar Johnson from prison. The St. Louis man has served 26 years for a murder that the St. Louis Circuit Attorney — whose office originally prosecuted the case — now says he didn’t commit.

But the prosecutor’s office and advocates alike have been stymied by legal procedure. The Supreme Court on March 2unanimously affirmed a lower court ruling that Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner does not have the right to motion for a new trial. The request, its decision affirmed, came decades too late.

Now Johnson’s lawyers will attempt a different path. Lindsay Runnels of the Kansas City firm Morgan Pilate has fought Johnson’s case with the Midwest Innocence Project and Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit. She said on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air that they will soon apply for a writ of habeas corpus, which asks the court to determine whether someone is wrongfully being held in prison.

Runnels noted that it won’t be easy to get. “In the culture that is Missouri innocence litigation, it is a long, expensive, inefficient process because the Attorney General’s Office in the state of Missouri has made it a point to object on procedural grounds to literally every one of them in the last decade.”

Lamar Johnson.
Provided / Tish Sjuts
Lamar Johnson

In her concurring opinion, Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith argued that it would be a mistake for Attorney General Eric Schmitt to continue that policy. “In suggesting it is his duty, and that of the circuit attorney, as representatives of the State, to oppose a request for habeas or similar relief, the attorney general misunderstands the full extent of the prosecution’s role in the justice system. The United States Supreme Court has explained that the prosecutor’s role is not simply one of being an adversary to the defense. To the contrary: [T]he prosecutor’s role transcends that of an adversary.”

Runnels said that, above all, she’d like to see Schmitt not oppose Johnson’s request for an evidentiary hearing. “What we would ask, and what we’ve long asked for Mr. Johnson, is his day in court. Not opposing Mr. Johnson’s request for an evidentiary hearing, where all of this evidence can be put before an impartial judge and a judge can decide if Mr. Johnson has met the very high standard of proof for him is all that we ask. Just the opportunity for a court to hear his evidence.”

The fact that the Missouri Supreme Court has said there is no path for a prosecutor like Gardner to free wrongly convicted defendants is a problem, Runnel said.

“It’s a body blow to conviction integrity units in Missouri,” she said. “The court I think issued a mandate to our legislature to say ‘fix this.’ And hopefully we’ll see some leadership out of the Missouri legislature on fixing this gap in our statutes.”

Runnels said she and Johnson have a standing 2 p.m. call on court decision days.

“This Tuesday’s one was hard. It certainly was,” she said. “But like so many folks that are innocent and in custody, Lamar Johnson has been waiting a long time. He is hopeful and he knows that his legal team is not going to quit on him and that he’ll eventually be released. He has to believe that to survive in there, and his lawyers believe the same.

“He’ll come home. We’re just going to have to take the long way around.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
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