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Earlier this week, a St. Louis judge overturned the murder conviction of Lamar Johnson, who spent nearly 28 years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit. John Yang first profiled Johnson's case in 2021 and spoke with him again Friday just days after his release from prison. It's part of our series Searching for Justice.
Earlier this week, a St. Louis judge overturned the murder conviction of Lamar Johnson, a man sentenced to life in prison in 1995 for the murder of Marcus Boyd.
John Yang has more as part of our Searching for Justice series — John.
Amna Nawaz, in 2021, producer Frank Carlson and I looked into Johnson's case. We interviewed him in prison, spoke with Lindsay Runnels, one of his lawyers, at the scene of the crime in question, and with St. Louis circuit attorney Kim Gardner, who reexamined Johnson's case and became convinced of his innocence.
Gardner's investigation turned up even more proof of Johnson's innocence. The prosecution's eyewitness recanted, admitting he'd only identified Johnson because police told him Johnson was guilty.
And her team found records showing prosecutors paid that witness more than $4,000 for housing and expenses, information that was never disclosed to the defense.
So, you have no evidence that he committed the crime. You have the confession of two other people that they committed the crime and that he did not. You have raised pretty good questions about whether or not the trial was fair. People will ask, then why is he in prison?
Kimberly Gardner, St. Louis Circuit Attorney:
That's a good question. I mean, that's a good question.
On Tuesday, after nearly 28 years behind bars, Johnson left the courtroom as a free man. Friends, family and supporters cheered him.
And now here are Lamar Johnson his attorney, one of his attorneys, Lindsay Runnels.
Lamar and Lindsay, thank you so much for joining us.
Lamar, I want to tell you, it's great to see you where you are, rather than in the visitors room at the Missouri State Penitentiary, where we last met.
But, Lamar, it must have been a powerful moment when — number one, when the judge said that you are actually innocent, which is the legal term, and then you walked out of the courtroom a free man. You didn't have guards. You didn't have anyone accompanying you for the first time in, what, 29 years?
Yes, 28 — yes, 28.
Yes, that was a freeing feeling. I — it's almost indescribable. And going on into that crowd was very overwhelming. And — but it happened. It happened.
It also must have been powerful, because you told us all along that you just wanted to get beyond the procedural matters that were keeping you in prison and have a hearing.
And you had that hearing in December. And you sat there in the courtroom. You heard the prosecutor and the police officer in charge of your investigation say, under oath, they had no evidence linking you to the crime.
What was that — was that a feeling of satisfaction? How did you feel when you heard that?
Well, I knew it was, because there was no motive, no physical evidence to connect me to it. It was on — and, even with an eyewitness, he had never verified any identification of me until he was at the police station, after he identified somebody else in the lineup.
And so everything that came after that was at the — after I was arrested. So, there never was any evidence to even really bring me in for that.
Lindsay, you have been on this case for a very long time.
Kim Gardner had gone to court once before trying to get a new trial. What was different this time?
Lindsay Runnels, Attorney:
You know, what was different is Lamar Johnson.
Through that protracted motion for new trial in St. Louis, all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court, the question was, do we have — this prosecutor in Missouri have the legal authority to go to court and fix a wrongful conviction? The court said no, but called on the legislature to provide a law.
The legislature did just that and passed a law giving prosecutors the power and the authority to correct wrongful convictions, which, up until that point, did not exist, but for Lamar Johnson's case.
Kim Gardner in 2022 filed the motion because of that law under that statute that was created by the both of them.
Lamar, you spent nearly three decades in prison, your 20s, your 30s, most — in your 40s.
You told us when we met last time that, as long as there's life, there's hope. You had so many setbacks, so many times the courts said no. How did you keep your hope alive during that time?
Because it was all I had.
And I could not imagine giving up on something that I know was rightfully taken from me. And I just couldn't — I couldn't imagine just giving up.
Not only did you keep hope alive, but you don't seem angry. And you didn't seem angry at what was done to you and what happened to you.
How do you explain that?
Well, holding on to anger, you just really would be — just be trading in one prison for another.
And there's just — there's nothing in that to gain. And even though there has been a lot of setbacks and disappointments, in the end, there's still a lot to be joyful about. And so I hang on to that.
What — how have you been spending your time since Tuesday?
Eating and having my friend run me around.
That's what I have been doing, enjoying all the foods that I didn't get inside.
I have been able to meet with some friends and family, and just try to get used to how much the world has changed, just the technology and all the choices going inside of a grocery store. All those things is just amazing and probably things that a lot of people on the outside don't really give much thought to.
Is someone helping you with the transition?
Yes, he's a friend of mine from my — actually, he's in exoneree himself. His name was Ricky Kidd.
And he was exonerated about three or four years ago. And he's been very helpful, because he's experienced this.
Lindsay, how many other Lamar Johnsons are there in prison waiting for an attorney like you to come along?
Too many. More than there are lawyers for.
Conservative estimates are between 2 and 5 percent. And when you think about two million people being in custody, I'm not good at math, but it's a breathtaking number.
Lindsay, as I talked about how many years was — were taken away from Lamar, under Missouri law, he gets his — gets nothing, gets no restitution or compensation.
Does the state owe him something?
I believe the state owes him more than they could ever repay him.
He's lost more, the time, that he can never get back. But Missouri does have a compensation package. But it is so narrow that very, very few people qualify for it.
Can you try to get compensation?
There's pending legislation in the legislature right now that would expand the eligibility under Missouri's compensation package to include folks like Lamar Johnson, Larry (ph), and Ricky Kidd and so many others.
It has stalled in legislations prior. I am hopeful that this case will help highlight the need for that. But it's up to the legislature to do the right thing here. He has a GoFundMe. And through the generosity of people all over the country and Europe even, we're getting donations. People are donating small amounts to him that are adding up to enough money for him to start a life.
But, ultimately, he is depending on the generosity of the public right now.
Lamar, I know, you saw your mother, Mae, and your daughter, Kiera, in — they came to visit you in prison. But what was it like to see them without the guards standing there, with your — not in that visiting room?
Inside — in prison, you only are allowed two- to three-second brief hooks. And so that's one of the things that I got to do, is to hold them and to just have a proper huge, and to — for them to know that I'm out and that I didn't do this.
And it allows us to heal.
And have I read this correctly that Kiera is getting married in April, your daughter?
She is getting married in April. And I am overjoyed to be able to be there and watch that happen.
Lamar, have you thought much beyond that, beyond what the future holds for you, what you might do, what you might want to do, try to do?
Well, I mean, I worked at the DLC for 30 years. So I learned how to become — to transcribe in braille. I know some graphic arts.
But I'm open to doing anything. I just want an opportunity, job opportunities, which, unfortunately, is not afforded to me by the state of Missouri. I mean, if I was getting out on parole, they would provide all types of assistance, transportation, housing, employment even.
But they don't do that for exonerees. And so that's something that I would hope the legislature would look at as well.
And, Lamar, when I asked you what you missed in prison, you said you missed the things you hadn't done, that you hadn't done yet.
And you specifically mentioned swimming in the ocean. Have you got an ocean trip planned?
I don't have one planed, but, God willing, I will get that opportunity, that and flying in an airplane.
So, maybe I will get to do that to fly in the airplane to get to the ocean, and I will enjoy both at the same time.
Do it all in one trip.
Lamar Johnson, Lindsay Runnels, thank you very much.
And, Lamar, we wish you all the best.
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
Watch the Full Episode
John Yang is the anchor of PBS News Weekend and a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
Frank Carlson is a general assignment producer at the PBS NewsHour, where he's been making video since 2010. @frankncarlson
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