Wrongful conviction case judge: Was there ‘rush’ to convict?

Dec 15, 2022, 8:17 PM | Updated: Dec 16, 2022, 1:53 pm
A tear rolls down Lamar Johnson's cheek as he testifies on the stand during the fourth day of his w...

A tear rolls down Lamar Johnson's cheek as he testifies on the stand during the fourth day of his wrongful conviction hearing in St. Louis, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, Pool)

(David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, Pool)

              Missouri Assistant Attorney General Tristin Estep questions Erika Barrow during the fourth day of Lamar Johnson's wrongful conviction hearing in St. Louis, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
              Erika Barrow gives testimony during the fourth day of Lamar Johnson's wrongful conviction hearing in St. Louis, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. Barrow testified that Johnson was with her several miles away from the site at the time when the murder took place. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
              A tear rolls down Lamar Johnson's cheek as he testifies on the stand during the fourth day of his wrongful conviction hearing in St. Louis, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2022. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
              Circuit Court Judge David Mason listens to testimony during the third day of Lamar Johnson's wrongful conviction hearing in St. Louis on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
              Lamar Johnson listens to testimony during the third day of his wrongful conviction hearing in St. Louis on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, Pool)

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The judge presiding over a hearing to determine if a Missouri man’s murder conviction should be overturned questioned on Friday if police and prosecutors “were in a little bit of a rush” to convict Lamar Johnson.

At issue is St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s effort to vacate Johnson’s murder conviction in the 1994 killing of Marcus Boyd. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office wants to keep Johnson behind bars.

Testimony concluded Friday afternoon, with Judge David Mason giving the sides 10 days to file briefs, meaning no decision will be announced until after Christmas.

“This is all new,” Mason said. “We want to look at this carefully. We want to get this right.”

The hearing differs from a typical trial, and Mason frequently asked questions of his own throughout the five-day hearing. Some of those questions were pointed when the detective who investigated the case, Joseph Nickerson, was on the stand.

Nickerson characterized Johnson as a violent drug dealer who had been arrested in killings “probably three times” before Boyd’s death, but was never convicted because witnesses wouldn’t testify.

Mason heard that, paused, then asked, “You sure this isn’t a situation where you guys were in a little bit of a rush to make a conviction?”

“Not at all, Your Honor, not one bit,” Nickerson responded.

Boyd was shot to death on the front porch of his St. Louis home by two men wearing ski masks on Oct. 30, 1994. While Johnson was sent away for life, a second suspect, Phil Campbell, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in exchange for a seven-year prison term. Campbell is deceased.

Johnson, now 49, testified on Thursday that he was with his girlfriend the night of the crime, breaking away only for a few minutes to step outside to sell drugs. The girlfriend, Erika Barrow, also testified that she was with Johnson except for about a five-minute span when he left to make the drug sale.

The drugs were sold at roughly the time Boyd was killed, Johnson said, but several blocks away. The two sites are nearly 3 miles (5 kilometers) apart.

“Did you kill Marcus Boyd?” an attorney asked Johnson.

“No, sir,” Johnson responded, noting that the two sold drugs together and were close friends.

“To this day I don’t know why people suspect that I killed him,” he said.

The case against Johnson was built largely on the words of two men: James Gregory Elking, who was trying to buy crack cocaine from Boyd at the time of the shooting; and William Mock, a jail inmate who said he overheard a conversation between Campbell and Johnson inside the St. Louis jail.

Mock told investigators he heard one of the men say, “We should have shot that white boy,” apparently referring to Elking. The man who prosecuted Johnson, Dwight Warren, acknowledged on Wednesday conviction was “iffy” without Mock’s testimony.

Special Assistant to the Circuit Attorney Charles Weiss sought to raise credibility concerns about Mock, noting that he sought release from incarceration as a reward for aiding the case. He had been successful in getting probation after a similar jailhouse revelation years earlier in Kansas City, Missouri.

Nickerson testified that Johnson made a similar comment to another detective, “something to the effect that they never should have let the white boy live.”

Johnson said he never made any such statement.

Elking testified this week that he was coerced into picking Johnson out of a lineup. He said that when he was initially unable to do so, Nickerson told him, “I know you know who it is,” and urged him to “help get these guys off the street.” So, Elking said, he agreed to name Johnson as the shooter.

Nickerson denied coercing Elking. He said Elking’s identification of Johnson from the lineup was based on all that he could see of the shooter’s face — his eyes. Johnson has one eye that looks different than the other, Nickerson said. “You can clearly see it.”

James Howard, who is now serving a life sentence for murder and several other crimes committed three years after Boyd was killed, testified that he and Campbell decided to rob Boyd, who owed one of their friends money from the sale of drugs. A scuffle ensued and the men killed Boyd, he said.

“Was Lamar Johnson there?” asked Jonathan Potts, an attorney for Johnson.

“No,” Howard answered.

Campbell, years prior to his death, signed an affidavit saying Johnson was not involved in the killing.

In March 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court denied Johnson’s request for a new trial after Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office argued successfully that Gardner lacked the authority to seek one so many years after the case was adjudicated.

The case led to passage of a state law that makes it easier for prosecutors to get new hearings in cases where there is fresh evidence of a wrongful conviction. That law freed another longtime inmate, Kevin Strickland, last year.

After the Johnson hearing, Gardner said a “clear and convincing evidence” proved Johnson’s innocence.

“What is even more disturbing, the Attorney General’s Office continuing to defend the undeniable lie that the criminal justice system does not make mistakes,” Gardner said.

Lawyers for the state declined comment after the hearing.

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Wrongful conviction case judge: Was there ‘rush’ to convict?