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Two people confessed to a murder Lamar Johnson is in prison for. Politics may keep him in

Across the country, prosecutors are trying to overturn wrongful convictions and right historical injustices. For nearly 26 years, Lamar Johnson has been serving life without parole for a murder he says he didn’t commit and two other men confessed to. But a battle in Missouri between his progressive prosecutor and a conservative state attorney general has left him in limbo. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across the country, prosecutors are working to overturn wrongful convictions, helping to free the very people their offices convicted in the past, aiming to right historical injustices.

    But, as John Yang reports, a battle in Missouri between a progressive prosecutor and a conservative state attorney general has left one man's quest for freedom in limbo.

  • John Yang:

    For nearly 26 years, Lamar Johnson's been serving life without the possibility of parole for a murder he says he didn't commit.

  • Lamar Johnson:

    For the most part, prison is just constant fear, especially you first come in. It's afraid of how it is and what's going to happen to you.

    Then it's just fear of dying in prison and fear of getting sick in prison and fear of being abandoned, in my case, fear of just not having the opportunity to be heard.

  • John Yang:

    Now 47 years old, Johnson was only 21 years old when he was locked up. For decades, he fought his conviction without the help of a lawyer.

  • Lamar Johnson:

    I have not even had a hearing on any of the evidence that I have presented. And I don't understand why.

  • Lindsay Runnels, Attorney:

    The truth of the matter is, is that it's very easy to get a wrongful conviction. It's incredibly difficult to overturn one.

  • John Yang:

    Today, Lindsay Runnels and the Midwest Innocence Project represent Johnson. Runnels spoke to us at the scene of the crime in question, the October 30, 1994, murder of Marcus Boyd, a friend of Johnson's.

    According to court papers, Boyd was selling crack cocaine to a friend.

    So, Lindsay, set the scene for us. It was at night, from what I can tell, about 9:00 at night.

  • Lindsay Runnels:

    That's right. Not much light. There's this overhead streetlight here. But it was dark, 9:00 in the fall. They're sitting on the porch. And two fully masked Black males dressed in all in black clothing came around from behind the house, through the alleys here, ran up on the porch, and grabbed Marcus.

  • John Yang:

    There was a struggle, and Marcus Boyd was fatally shot.

    And where was Lamar?

  • Lindsay Runnels:

    He was about 3.5 miles from here.

  • John Yang:

    And how do we know he was there?

  • Lindsay Runnels:

    He has — he was there with his girlfriend, who testified at trial, and two other people.

  • John Yang:

    At Johnson's trial, his girlfriend said he left the house for less than five minutes to meet a friend, which turned out to be a drug deal.

    Police testified he could have left and killed Boyd in no more than five minutes. But look at a Google map showing the route between the two locations. It takes about double that to go just one way. And police said the other man on the porch identified Johnson, despite the fact that he said it was dark and that both attackers hid their faces.

  • Lindsay Runnels:

    They wore ski masks that had a cutout for the eye area and portions of the nose.

  • John Yang:

    So, that's all that was visible?

  • Lindsay Runnels:

    That's correct.

  • John Yang:

    Just the eyes and a little bit of the nose?

  • Lindsay Runnels:

    Right.

  • John Yang:

    What's more, since Johnson's conviction, two men have confessed to being the ones who killed Boyd, and said Johnson had nothing to do with it.

  • Kimberly Gardner, St. Louis Circuit Attorney:

    It shows that, sometimes, there is a miscarriage of justice.

  • John Yang:

    In 2018, Johnson found an unexpected ally in St. Louis circuit attorney Kimberly Gardner, the current head of the very office that put him away.

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    I believe that, because I'm a minister of justice, and because I uncovered wrongdoing in this case, it is my obligation under the Constitution, not just the state, but the U.S. Constitution, to correct a wrongful conviction. And that's what I did.

  • Woman:

    His case is extremely old.

  • John Yang:

    Gardner began to reexamine Johnson's case through her newly-created Conviction Integrity Unit, a tool progressive prosecutors are increasingly using to prevent, identify, and undo wrongful convictions.

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    A conviction integrity unit, in my mind, is not only to correct wrongful convictions, it's actually to teach prosecutors, police, to be a training tool, to actually help us do a better job.

    We have to train our attorneys that, in the end of the day, we're ministers of justice, to pursue justice, not merely convictions.

  • John Yang:

    According to a national database, last year, there were 74 conviction integrity units operating in the United States, eight of them newly opened. Together, they were responsible for nearly half of the country's 129 exonerations.

    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:

    That's a good question. I mean, that's a good question.

  • John Yang:

    In 2019, armed with her new evidence, Gardner went to court to ask for a new trial. For Johnson, having the top St. Louis prosecutor on his side was powerful.

  • Lamar Johnson:

    I knew the Innocence Project believed in it, three different directors, all types of law students, all type of law professors.

    Everybody looked at the case, and they all said the same thing. But she represented the state. And it was the first time that somebody from the other side had acknowledged the same thing.

  • John Yang:

    But it wasn't enough. A judge threw out Gardner's request for a new trial.

    Many say this case has become less about Lamar Johnson and the evidence of his innocence and more about a struggle between a conservative state attorney general and a progressive prosecutor.

  • Protester:

    Hands up!

  • Protesters:

    Don't shoot!

  • John Yang:

    In the wake of the death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson and the protests and unrest that followed, Gardner was elected in 2016 on a pledge to shake up the St. Louis criminal justice system.

    She's done that. But it hasn't made her very popular with the political establishment. When Gardner asked for a new trial for Johnson, the judge took the unusual step of appointing state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, to intervene. Schmitt argued that the law doesn't give Gardner the power to ask for a new trial, despite the fact that, in 2018, another Missouri prosecutor was allowed to set aside two convictions in his district based on new evidence.

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    The attorney general never questioned whether Lamar Johnson was innocent or there was any evidence that Lamar Johnson committed the crime. What he talked about was whether the prosecutor, like myself, had the ability to actually correct wrongful convictions.

    And that's a problem, because you have a duty, and your duty is to protect everyone, even people who are incarcerated.

  • John Yang:

    The judge and later the state Supreme Court agreed with Schmitt. For Johnson, who thought he had a breakthrough when he got the backing of Gardner's Conviction Integrity Unit, it was a heavy blow.

  • Lamar Johnson:

    I was just sure that they was going to at least grant me a hearing. And when they said no, it's just — it was devastating.

  • John Yang:

    That was true for Johnson's family, too. Daughter was just an infant when he was locked up. Despite a lifetime apart, she and her father have grown close.

    Kiera Barrow, Daughter of Lamar Johnson: All the hope that you had, it's just quickly snatched from you.

    It's frustrating because the conversation is not whether or not he's innocent, but who has the power and the authority to release him.

  • John Yang:

    Gardner says this was about politics.

  • Kimberly Gardner:

    If I was part of the status quo club of prosecutors, I believe Lamar Johnson would be home yesterday. And I'm sorry for that.

  • John Yang:

    Schmitt's office never responded to multiple requests from the "NewsHour" for comment. Since the state Supreme Court decision, one legal hurdle to a new trial for Johnson could soon be removed.

    Last month, the Missouri legislature passed a new bill explicitly allowing local prosecutors to ask for the convictions of those wrongly imprisoned to be set aside. It's on Governor Mike Parson's desk, awaiting his decision.

    Attorney General Schmitt, now running for the U.S. Senate, could still object, and a judge would still have the final say.

    Meanwhile, Johnson's attorneys have a plan of their own, ask the courts to release him because his constitutional rights were violated at trial.

  • Lindsay Runnels:

    But that is a hard process. There's a lot of things that have to happen before he gets that day in court, as we say.

    There will be objection, if past is any indication of the future. I assume that the attorney general's office will object to Lamar Johnson getting a hearing,

  • Lamar Johnson:

    My concern is just simply getting caught up for God knows how long of procedural matters, procedural technicalities. If truth matters, if justice is what really is important, why can't we just get to that?

  • John Yang:

    Johnson says he remains hopeful that, one day, he will be free.

  • Lamar Johnson:

    From the beginning, I knew something was wrong because I got convicted for something I didn't do. And so I knew the truth was out there somehow. And I just didn't give up. And knowing that kept me hopeful.

    Like, as long as there's life, there's hope. And so long, as there's hope, I know that the situation can be righted.

  • John Yang:

    Even when that hope is dashed again and again by a system that seems stacked against him.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Jefferson City, Missouri.

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