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Missouri man who served 27 years in prison is freed as judge vacates his murder conviction

<i>Christian Gooden/AP</i><br/>
Christian Gooden/AP

By Andy Rose and Elizabeth Wolfe, CNN

A Missouri man who has been serving a life sentence for nearly three decades was set free Tuesday after a judge ruled he is innocent and vacated his murder conviction.

Lamar Johnson was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1995 after being convicted of murder in the death of Markus Boyd the year prior. At the time, police said Johnson and another man, Phillip Campbell, shot and killed Boyd.

But Johnson was given a new hearing after St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner filed a motion last year saying his conviction was based in large part on false eyewitness testimony and accusing prosecutors and investigators of misconduct.

On Tuesday, Missouri Circuit Court Judge David Mason ruled that Johnson’s trial included “constitutional error” and said “there is clear and convincing evidence of Lamar Johnson’s actual innocence,” according to the judge’s order.

Johnson appeared to tear up in the courtroom as Mason announced his decision. Johnson smiled broadly as he left the courthouse and declined to speak to reporters.

“This is an amazing day that we showed that the city of St. Louis and the state of Missouri is about justice and not defending the finality of a conviction,” Gardner said following the ruling.

Eyewitness recanted testimony, and 2 others confessed

Gardner asked the court to vacate Johnson’s murder conviction after the sole eyewitness at trial recanted, and Campbell and another man signed sworn affidavits confessing to involvement in Boyd’s murder.

During a five-day court hearing held in December, the other man, James Howard, testified that he and Campbell — who has since died — shot Boyd over a drug dispute, the order says.

Howard was sentenced to life in a separate homicide and Campbell served less than six years for Boyd’s killing, one of Johnson’s attorneys has said.

On the night of Boyd’s killing, Johnson had an alibi and prosecutors did not present any physical evidence linking him to the killing, Mason’s order says.

Instead, prosecutors relied heavily on a single eyewitness, James Elking, who identified Johnson as one of the killers, the document says.

During the new hearing, Elking again recanted his identification of Johnson as the one who shot Boyd, the order says. The hearing also determined prosecutors paid him more than $4,000 in “witness compensation” before the trial that was not disclosed at the time, the order says.

Dwight Warren, the lead prosecutor of the original case, told CNN in 2019 that the witness “may have been compensated out of fear for his life and we may have relocated him, but this was 25 years ago and I cannot tell you with certainty.”

Evidence presented in the hearing showed that police interfered with Elking’s initial identification — with Elking saying during December’s proceedings that he felt pressured to pick someone out of a line-up — the order reads. Prosecutors later withheld evidence that would have undermined Elking’s trial testimony, Mason’s order says.

Warren said in 2019 that the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct were “outlandish” and a “one-sided hatchet job.”

The Midwest Innocence Project, which has provided legal support to Johnson, says he is not eligible to seek any compensation for his imprisonment under state law. The group established a GoFundMe page to help start his new life outside prison, saying Johnson “will enter the free world with no resources to begin his new life outside of prison walls.

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CNN’s Ray Sanchez contributed to this report.

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