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Lamar Johnson

Other Missouri Exonerations with Official Misconduct
At 9 p.m. on October 30, 1994, Greg Elking was visiting Markus Boyd at Boyd’s apartment on Louisiana Avenue in St. Louis, Missouri, to pay off a $40 drug debt. As the two men talked on the porch, a white man approached Boyd, and they conducted a quick drug deal. Just after that man left, two other men, wearing masks and dark clothing, ran up on the porch. One of the men ordered Elking off the porch. They then fired several shots at Boyd and ran away.

Boyd’s girlfriend, Leslie Williams, called 911 at 9:07. Paramedics arrived and took Boyd to University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 9:55 p.m.

Williams had been inside the apartment and heard the shots, but she told police that she did not see the shooting. Williams quickly reached out to her cousin, Pamela Williams, and told her what had happened.

Pamela Williams then paged 20-year-old Lamar Johnson. He and Boyd were close friends and sold drugs together but recently had a falling out. Pamela Williams told Johnson that her cousin wondered whether he was involved in the shooting. Johnson asked Pamela Williams to add Leslie Williams to the call. “Why would you think that?” he asked. He told Leslie Williams that he was not involved and was a few miles away from Boyd’s home at the time of the shooting.

Later that night, Leslie Williams went to the police station. Investigators asked her whether Boyd had problems with anybody. She explained Boyd’s relationship with Johnson. A police report from the interview said that Williams “strongly believes that Lamar may have something to do with the murder.”

Detective Joseph Nickerson began leading the investigation into Boyd’s death on October 31, 1994. He interviewed Leslie Williams on November 1. His report said that she believed Johnson was responsible and that the two men had argued about missing drugs and stolen money. (Williams would state in a pre-trial deposition that although Boyd and Johnson were no longer close, she couldn’t think of a reason that Johnson would want to kill Boyd.)

Separately, Nickerson interviewed several persons who bought drugs from Boyd and Johnson. According to Nickerson’s report, Ed Neiger and Dawn Byrd each described parts of the alleged dispute between Boyd and Johnson. Byrd said that Boyd told her that he believed Johnson was following him. (Both Byrd and Neiger later said in pre-trial depositions that Nickerson’s report was inaccurate.)

Elking had run away after the shooting. Williams knew only his first name, and that he and Boyd had worked together at a printing company. Nickerson located Elking, who called the detective on November 3 and confirmed he was with Boyd at the time of the crime. Elking said that the assailants were Black, and that each had a gun and wore a mask. One was about 5’9” tall and the other was taller. Elking didn’t provide any additional descriptions. He also said that he believed the white man who had bought drugs from Boyd just before the shooting might be involved.

Elking and his wife met Nickerson at a diner at 2 p.m. later that day. Nickerson told the couple that the state could help them financially with expenses if Elking came forward as a witness. Nickerson showed Elking a photo array of five photos, including Johnson and Phillip Campbell. According to Nickerson’s report, Elking identified Johnson based on his eyes. However, he did not sign the back of the Johnson photo and made no identification of Campbell.

Nickerson then called a prosecutor and a warrant officer and said that Elking had identified Johnson. He and Campbell were arrested at 5:45 p.m.

A half hour later, Nickerson interviewed Johnson, who denied any involvement in the shooting. He said he was with his girlfriend on Lafayette Avenue, about three miles away from Boyd’s home. Nickerson stopped questioning Johnson.

At around 8 p.m., Detective Ralph Campbell (no relation) arrived for his shift. He asked Nickerson if he could speak with Johnson about an unrelated matter. Campbell would later write in his report that Johnson made inculpatory statements about the Boyd shooting, including that “he let the white guy live.” (Elking is white.) Campbell said in his report that Johnson refused to allow a recorded statement.

Nickerson picked up Elking around 8:30 and took him to the police station to look at lineups. In the first lineup, Elking looked at the men at least three times, then picked a filler as the shooter. Elking then looked at the second lineup, which included only Campbell, and made no identification.

Nickerson and Elking then left the viewing room. According to the police report, Elking told Nickerson that he was scared and needed time to think. The report said that Elking then told Nickerson that he had lied when he failed to make identifications. He returned to the viewing room and identified Johnson and Campbell from their positions in the lineups. The report said that Elking identified Johnson based on a so-called lazy eye and Campbell based on a scar on his forehead. Neither feature had been mentioned in earlier descriptions provided by Elking.

On November 4, 1994, Johnson and Campbell were charged with first-degree murder and armed criminal action. They were placed in the St. Louis City Jail’s holdover unit.

On November 5, an inmate in the jail named William Mock asked to speak to a homicide detective. He told Detective Ronald Jackson that he heard Johnson confess to the murder to Campbell and another man he knew only as “Lamont.” Mock’s statement wasn’t recorded.

Mock returned to his cell. He spoke with Jackson the next day. This time, Jackson recorded the interview. According to Jackson’s report: “Mock stated he overheard Campbell asked [sic] Johnson, ‘You don’t think they (Police) got enough to convict us do you.’ Johnson replied, ‘They (Police) don’t have the gun, they don’t have Terrell and they don’t have the white boy. And as long as the white boy ain’t snitching we’re cool, and we’re going to take care of the white boy.’” According to the report, Mock heard Campbell ask Johnson: “What if they get Terrell with the gun and they lean on him. He’ll snitch on us about the robbery we did on the south side and the white boy you shot.” (Jackson pled guilty in 2010 to stealing money from a person he arrested and received a sentence of 18 months in federal prison.)

Mock was in the city jail on suspicion of breaking into a church van and was awaiting being returned to Kansas City, Missouri, on a probation violation. A judge later revoked his probation and ordered him to report to prison in January 1995. By June 1, 1995, Mock was writing prosecutors in St. Louis, offering to assist in their case against Johnson.

“I am willing to testify as long as I do not have to return to the Department of Corrections once I [testify]. I can’t. I won’t live in protective custody or any institution once I testify.” He didn’t want parole. That was too uncertain. He wanted a reduction in his sentence or a pardon from the governor. “I am positive that this can be worked out for the good of all. I will uphold my end of this situation as I am positive you will fulfill your obligations to me.”

Johnson’s jury trial in St. Louis City Circuit Court, presided over by Judge Booker Shaw, began on July 10, 1995.

During his opening statement, assistant prosecutor Dwight Warrant told jurors that Mock did not “want any special consideration” for his testimony against Johnson and just wanted to “tell the police what he heard.”

Detective Clyde Bailey testified that on August 17, 1994, he stopped Johnson, searched his car, and found a dark mask with a single eye hole, which was introduced into evidence. Johnson’s attorney, public defender David Bruns, moved to exclude the mask, arguing that an item seized 10 weeks before another crime had no probative value. Judge Shaw denied the motion.

Elking testified that he was able to get a good look at the gunman and had selected Johnson’s photo at the restaurant but was too scared to sign the back of the photo. He also testified that he initially selected the wrong man in the lineup because he was intimidated. He testified that the men who shot Boyd wore ninja-style masks that were open around the eyes, and that he was able to identify Johnson by his lazy eye. Elking also testified that the mask the detective said he found in Johnson’s car in August was the same type worn by the men who shot Boyd.

Leslie Williams testified that she was giving her daughter a bath at the time of the shooting. She heard gunshots and ran downstairs and saw two men wearing black masks. While Williams didn’t see their faces, she testified that she knew Johnson and that “his eye is lazy, it is like the whole side of his face is kind of slanted.” She also testified that Boyd and Johnson had been friends and roommates and that she and her cousin, Pamela Williams, had spoken to Johnson after the shooting. Detective Campbell testified about the incriminating statement that he said Johnson made to him after his arrest. He said that he had intended to talk to Johnson about an unrelated incident in the Tiffany neighborhood, but that Johnson had “turned the interview in another direction.”

Mock testified about what he said he heard in the jail. He said he heard a man from a nearby cell who identified himself as Johnson shouting, “they didn’t have the gun.” The following day, Mock testified, that same man talked about a robbery and murder on the city’s south side. (The police could find no record of this robbery or murder.) Mock testified that he had asked for little in exchange for his testimony, only that the prosecutor write the parole board on his behalf. He also testified that he had three felony convictions.

Under cross-examination, Mock testified that he was never in the same cell as Johnson and did not know the distance between their two cells.

Johnson did not testify. His girlfriend, Erika Barrow, testified that Johnson was with her almost the entire night, as they met up with two friends at a house on Lafayette Avenue. She said Johnson left once, for five minutes, at around 9 p.m. She corroborated Williams’s testimony that Johnson and Williams had spoken by telephone just after the shooting.

The state called Nickerson as a rebuttal witness. He testified that he’d driven the route between the addresses on Lafayette Avenue and Louisiana Avenue between “20-50” times, including two weeks before the trial. He said it was two miles one way and that Johnson could have driven there and killed Boyd in “no more than five minutes.”

In his closing argument, Warren told jurors that Mock had no incentive to lie. “The man may be a burglar, he may be someone who carries a gun, I think he had another charge there too but he’s a man that draws the line,” Warren said. “This was a terrible waste of a life. It was cold-blooded murder and you draw the line. Even criminals, people in jail have got some morals [and] say you know, enough is enough on this murder stuff. There’s just too much murder. I can’t keep my mouth shut and turn my face because of what has happened. Mock stood up and was counting, counting as a honest, God-fearing man to tell you the truth.”

The jury convicted Johnson on both charges on July 12, 1995. On September 29, 1995, he received a sentence of life without parole.

In the period between the conviction and sentencing, Campbell, who was still awaiting trial, wrote Johnson several letters from the city jail. In the letters, which jail officials seized pursuant to a search warrant, Campbell described what happened and said he and James “B.A.” Howard shot and killed Boyd.

He wrote in the first letter: “I don’t know why you keep telling people we tried to kill Markus. Went up there to pistol whip Markus about talking s--t to Puffy. When we ran out the [illegible] B.A. tried to grab Markus. They started wrestling for the gun and that’s why we had to shoot him.” (Puffy was the nickname of Sirone Spates, who was said to have had a disagreement with Boyd about the details of a drug deal.) Prior to sentencing, Johnson moved for a new trial based on these letters. Judge Shaw denied the motion, noting that Campbell had not said he would confirm the letters’ contents under oath and that Campbell’s attorney said he would not allow his client to testify in the matter.

Elking stopped cooperating with police after Johnson’s trial. Without his testimony, prosecutors cut a deal with Campbell. He pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 1996 and received a sentence of seven years in prison.

Prior to his sentencing, Campbell executed his first sworn affidavit that Johnson had no part in Boyd’s death. He executed a second affidavit repeating that in 2009, just before his death. Howard, who was never charged in this case, executed three affidavits – in 2002, 2005, and 2009 – that also said Johnson wasn’t involved. (Howard is serving a life sentence for a separate murder.)

The Eastern District of the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed Johnson’s conviction on April 6, 1999. In 2000, Johnson filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. He asserted several claims, including that the trial judge erred in allowing the mask to be admitted into evidence and that he should have been granted a new trial based on Campbell’s letters from jail. A federal judge denied his petition on March 4, 2003.

On July 12, 2003, Elking wrote a letter to a minister recanting his testimony. In prison at the time, Elking wrote, “I never knew who the gunmen were or could see their faces, because they were wearing masks.” He said the state had given him financial assistance to move out of the city and that police and prosecutors told him to say that he couldn’t initially make an identification of Johnson because he was scared. “The reason I am telling you this now is my conscience. I regret not coming to you or anyone else sooner.”

Elking wrote to Johnson on November 24, 2003, and executed affidavits on December 17, 2003 and February 24, 2010. In the 2010 affidavit, Elking said that after he was unable to make identifications from the lineups, Nickerson told him what numbers to pick. In addition, Elking provided further detail of the financial assistance he received, stating he believed the total was about $2,000. This information wasn’t disclosed to Johnson’s trial attorney.

Between 2009 and 2014, Johnson’s attorneys with the Midwest Innocence Project filed 10 requests for information about any payments received by Elking or his wife. The agencies they queried, including the police department and the Circuit Attorney’s Office for St. Louis City, responded that no records existed.

In 2017, Kimberly Gardner took office as Circuit Attorney for St. Louis City. In 2018, her office’s newly created Conviction Integrity Unit began a review of Johnson’s case, assisted by Johnson’s attorneys with the Midwest Innocence Project.

On July 19, 2019, Gardner’s office filed a motion for a new trial. The motion noted Elking’s recantations, as well as the letters from Campbell and Howard asserting Johnson’s innocence. In addition, associates of Johnson, Campbell, and Howard had provided affidavits supporting the earlier statements of Campbell and Howard that excluded Johnson from the crime.

The CIU’s investigation also discovered a ledger that recorded 13 payments to Elking from the Victim Witness Protection Fund totaling $4,241 for rent, moving costs, utilities, and miscellaneous expenses. In addition, the state dismissed several traffic tickets.

The investigation also uncovered problems with Mock’s testimony and the state’s disclosure of the benefits he received. During his testimony at Johnson’s trial, Mock testified that he had never been a witness in a criminal case. However, Mock had testified as a jailhouse informant in 1992 in a murder trial in Jackson County, Missouri. This wasn’t disclosed to the defense. In addition, Mock’s arrest record was more extensive than his testimony suggested or what prosecutors disclosed to the defense.

Prosecutors hadn’t disclosed the letter Mock wrote in 1995, offering his assistance and the terms he desired. After Johnson’s conviction, prosecutors asked state officials to grant Mock early release and accept him into a rehabilitation program. In addition, Mock had called Johnson a “two-bit n-—er” in his correspondence with Warren. That racial animus, the motion said, also should have been disclosed.

The motion said Warren had knowingly presented false evidence at trial by not correcting Mock’s statements about never testifying in a criminal case and the extent of his criminal record.

The motion also said that Nickerson testified incorrectly about the time needed to drive the 2.7 miles between the two homes. He said it took “no more than five minutes.” Mapping software showed it took about 11 minutes. There was no evidence presented at the trial that Johnson left the home on Lafayette for more than a few minutes or that the gunman drove off after shooting Boyd.

“Despite there being no evidence to support Detective Nickerson – indeed there was overwhelming evidence contradicting him – the State nevertheless presented his false testimony that it was not only possible for Johnson to travel from Lafayette to 3910 Louisiana, kill Boyd, and return to Lafayette in a matter of minutes but that Detective Nickerson had driven the route ‘20-50 times’ and the route took no more than ‘five minutes.’ This is false testimony and the State knew or should have known that it was false.”

In the motion, Gardner wrote: “Based on the record now known and the professional, ethical, and constitutional duties of a prosecutor to seek justice, the Circuit Attorney moves this Court to grant her motion for a new trial.”

Judge Elizabeth Hogan of St. Louis City Circuit Court appointed the state Attorney General to appear on the state’s behalf, and then denied the motion, ruling that it was untimely and not permitted under Missouri law. Johnson appealed.

On March 2, 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed Judge Hogan’s ruling. It said that Johnson had other avenues to pursue his claims, but that Gardner’s motion, based on a direct appeal of his conviction, was not allowed.

“This case is not about whether Johnson is innocent or whether there exists a remedy for someone who is innocent and did not receive a constitutionally fair trial,” the court wrote. “This case presents only the issue of whether there is any authority to appeal the dismissal of a motion for a new trial filed decades after a criminal conviction became final. No such authority exists.”

On August 28, 2021, Missouri enacted a law that addressed the Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling. It gave prosecutors the authority to move for a new trial at any time upon learning that a convicted person was either innocent or wrongly convicted. Gardner filed a new motion on August 31, 2022. It repeated the claims made in the 2019 filing but included an additional problem with Mock. He had testified falsely in a pre-trial deposition that he had never been in a mental institution. That testimony was never corrected prior to trial.

Judge David Mason of St. Louis City Circuit Court held five days of hearings in December 2022. At the hearing, Elking repeated his recantation. He said the detectives working the case repeatedly encouraged him to make an identification. The jury was not told of this pressure. He testified that the police implied that if he didn’t cooperate, he might be charged as an accessory in Boyd’s death, because of his presence at the shooting. Elking said he was told, “Either you’re going to be on the winning side or the losing side. Which side do you want to be on?”

Elking’s identification revolved around Johnson’s supposed “lazy eye,” but Nickerson testified at the hearing that nobody ever checked to see whether Johnson had this distinguishing feature. In addition, Nickerson said that Elking was unable to make an identification after viewing Johnson’s lineup three times. The jury didn’t hear of this problem. Howard also testified, again describing how he and Campbell went to rob Boyd and shot him after he resisted.

The new law allowed the Attorney General’s office to attend hearings, question witnesses, and make arguments. At Johnson’s hearing, attorneys representing Attorney General Eric Schmitt appeared to challenge everything in Gardner’s motion, at one time questioning whether the shooting happened on October 30, 1994, according to the Missouri Independent.

On February 14, 2023, Judge Mason ordered a new trial. He said that Elking was the essential witness and that the failure to disclose the payments and other benefits deprived jurors of critical information to evaluate his credibility.

Judge Mason doubted that Elking could see much of the shooting, based on his position, the lighting, and the time frame of the events. Judge Mason said there was no evidence presented at trial that Johnson had a lazy eye; he had watched Johnson during the evidentiary hearing and saw nothing out of the ordinary with his face. “The jury was not given a universally accepted standard for what constitutes a lazy eye,” he wrote. “The descriptions given by Elking and Williams do not describe anything that was plainly visible about Johnson. This left the jury with accepting the lazy eye evidence as a fact just because an unqualified witness said it was true.”

Judge Mason said that although the state failed to disclose the extent of its cooperation agreement with Mock, the larger problem was that Johnson’s trial attorney failed to object to Mock’s testimony that he heard Johnson make incriminating statements from another cell. Mock never saw Johnson speak, Mason said, and the testimony shouldn’t have been admitted because there was no foundation that Mock knew Johnson’s voice or that the “white boy” referred to in Mock’s testimony was Elking.

“This is no small matter as the alleged admission by Johnson [to Mock] was clearly offered to bolster the testimony of Elking,” Mason wrote. “This statement could, and likely did, become the brick of certainty that caused the jury to believe Elking beyond a reasonable doubt.”

After Judge Mason’s ruling, Gardner dismissed the charges against Johnson that day.

Outside the courthouse in downtown St. Louis, Johnson said. “I want to thank, first off, people who had information about the case and came forward with the truth … All of the people who came out and supported me — this is overwhelming. I just thank everybody. Just thank you.”

In January 2024, Johnson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of St. Louis and eight police officers.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 3/1/2023
Last Updated: 1/18/2024
County:St. Louis City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Other Violent Felony
Reported Crime Date:1994
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:20
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No