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Lamar Johnson

Other Baltimore City CIU Exonerations
At about 2 p.m. on March 26, 2004, 31-year-old Carlos Sawyer was fatally shot three times on at the corner of McElderry Street and Patterson Park Avenue in Baltimore City, Maryland. At least 30 people were present at the time.

Within a day, an informant told police that the gunman was nicknamed “Boo Boo.” When police showed photographs of individuals from the neighborhood to the informant, he picked the photograph of 20-year-old Lamar Johnson. Johnson had been arrested in the past on drug charges, but not convicted. Police then focused on Johnson although his nickname was “Mar,” not “Boo Boo,” and even though they knew of several people who went by “Boo Boo.”

Police located two girls, ages 14 and 16, who said they were walking on McElderry Street toward where the shooting occurred and heard the gunshots. Police said that both girls identified Johnson as the gunman from photo lineups. Johnson was charged with first-degree murder, use of a handgun in the commission of a felony, assault, and reckless endangerment. At the time, Sawyer’s family told the police and prosecution that they did not believe Johnson was the gunman.

Before trial, Johnson’s lawyer sought to suppress the identifications because the lineup procedure was tainted. During a pre-trial hearing, one of the two girls noted that of the six men in the photographic lineup, Johnson had the darkest skin, and that some of the men in the lineup were light-skinned. The defense noted that the photograph of Johnson was larger than the photographs of the five other men. The motion to suppress the identifications was denied.

Johnson went to trial in Baltimore City Circuit Court in October 2005. No physical evidence linked him to the crime.

The 14-year-old girl testified that she heard several gunshots and saw “somebody getting shot.” She admitted she did not see the gunman’s face, and that “all I knew is he was dark skinned and he had on a little hat.” She was not wearing her glasses at the time and admitted that her distance vision was “blurry.” She said she ran away immediately. After selecting Johnson in the photo lineup, she testified that she wrote a statement saying that Johnson “was the person that shot the other boy that was laying in the gutter.”

The 17-year-old girl said she heard the shots and saw a man “standing over the top of another man with a gun shooting him.” The only details she could recall about the shooter were that he was African-American, about 5 feet 5 inches to 5 feet 6 inches tall, and 17 to 20 years old. While she initially told police she had never seen the gunman before that day, she admitted that she had known Johnson for more than five years from the neighborhood. She testified that she only identified Johnson in response to a detective's question about whether the picture “looked like him.”

Ronald Ciarolo, the lead detective on the case, testified that at one point right after the shooting, one of the people known as “Boo Boo” was a suspect.

The defense called a resident of the neighborhood who testified that earlier on the day of the shooting, he was with Sawyer when Sawyer got into a dispute with a man whom he knew as “Boo Boo.” That argument seemed to end when Sawyer pulled a knife. The witness said he left them after they both seemed to have calmed down. Ten minutes he later heard gunshots and came back to see Sawyer on the ground.

The witness said he immediately went to the nearby home of his niece, whom he knew was involved with Boo Boo. He found Boo Boo in an agitated state and sweating profusely. The witness said that Johnson was not Boo Boo.

The defense attorney also called a neighborhood resident who claimed that she saw the shooting and that Johnson was not the gunman. However, during cross-examination, it became apparent that her testimony was questionable and at one point, she placed Johnson at the scene.

Because that witness’s testimony was so damaging, Johnson’s lawyer, without any preparation, called Johnson to the witness stand. Although Johnson denied involvement in the crime, the prosecution caught him making several inconsistent statements during cross-examination.

During closing argument, Johnson’s counsel apologized to the jury for her performance.

On October 6, 2005, the jury convicted Johnson of first-degree murder and use of a firearm in the commission of felony. He was sentenced to life in prison plus an additional 20 years.

On appeal, Johnson contended that his trial lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense. The appeal was rejected by the Maryland Court of Appeals, which held that although defense counsel’s performance was deficient, the poor performance had not prejudiced Johnson.

In 2010, the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project began reinvestigating the case. After several years, three new witnesses were discovered who said that they saw the shooting and that Johnson was not the gunman.

In 2016, members of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project presented their findings to the Baltimore City District Attorney’s conviction integrity unit. During a lengthy re-investigation, a witness told the prosecution that after Johnson had been convicted, he heard the real gunman admit to the shooting. Throughout the process, Sawyer’s family continued to insist that Johnson was innocent. At the conclusion of their investigation, the conviction integrity unit agreed that the evidence pointed to Johnson’s innocence.

On September 18, 2017, the prosecution and Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project filed a joint motion to vacate Johnson’s convictions. On September 19, 2017, the motion was granted, the charges were dismissed, and Johnson was released. In 2018, Johnson filed a claim with the Maryland Board of Public Works for $1 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction. He was awarded $953,672 in October 2019.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 9/24/2017
Last Updated: 10/30/2019
County:Baltimore City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2004
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No