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Crime News

Man Seeks Exoneration In Murder After 28 Years In Prison, Following Confessions By The Alleged Real Killers

Another man who confessed to the killing years ago reiterated in court Monday that Lamar Johnson wasn't present at the time of Marcus Boyd's 1994 killing.

By Christina Coulter
6 Wrongful Convictions That Were Overturned

A Missouri man who served 28 years of a life sentence for murder is seeking exoneration after two other people confessed to the killing. An attorney for the St. Louis prosecutor's office argued in St. Louis Circuit Court on Monday that a witness was falsely coerced into identifying Lamar Johnson, 49, as Marcus Boyd's shooter, leading to Johnson's wrongful 1995 conviction. 

However, the Missouri attorney general's office maintains that Johnson was rightfully convicted, and should remain in prison. The hearing before Judge David Mason is expected to last five days. Johnson, who attended court dressed in a blue shirt and tie with brown slacks on Monday, quietly sat beside his attorneys and listened to testimony. 

"I believe in God. I believe that he had a purpose for me other than to spend the rest of my life in prison," Johnson told CBS St. Louis affiliate KMOV-TV before the hearing. 

"I think you can lie, you can deny, you can hide the truth, but eventually it's going to find a way. ... I'm comforted in that."

Johnson was accused of fatally shooting Boyd on the evening of Oct. 30, 1995, over a $40 drug debt, but said that he was with his girlfriend miles away when Boyd was killed. James Gregory Elking, a man who said he was trying to buy crack cocaine from Boyd and escaped the scene of the shooting, identified Johnson and another man, Phil Campbell, as the shooters.

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The gunmen wore full ski masks during the shooting. With no physical or DNA evidence tying him to the crime, Johnson was largely convicted on eyewitness testimony. 

But, years later, Elking recanted his testimony.

Johnson's lawyers have said that the eyewitness was paid $4,000 for his testimony, according to KMOV, and recently admitted in a letter that he was pressured by police and prosecutors. Charles Weiss, an attorney for the St. Louis prosecutor's office, said in court that Elking didn't identify Johnson in a lineup until he was coerced by detectives, according to the Associated Press

Elking alleges that Detective Joseph Nickerson told him, "I know you know who it is," as he viewed the lineup and urged him to "help get these guys off the street." 

He said he felt "bullied," and said at the time that if investigators told them who they suspected, he would identify him as the shooter. 

"I hate it, and I've been living with it for 30, 28 years," Elking said in court on Monday, fighting back tears. "I just wish I could change time."

Nickerson has denied these allegations, and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he still believed Johnson was guilty. 

A woman who lived nearby told police Johnson was the only person she knew who might have a problem with Boyd, detectives said on Monday. Another detective alleged during the investigation that Johnson once blurted out, "I shouldn't have let the white guy live," referring to Elking, during the investigation. However, Weiss said there was no recording of that conversation. 

Assistant Missouri Attorney General Miranda Loesch reportedly cited the alleged remark as evidence of Johnson's guilt. 

Campbell pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in exchange for a seven-year prison term. He and another man, James Howard, signed sworn affidavits admitting to the killing and said Johnson wasn't involved, according to the Associated Press. Now, Campbell is dead and Howard is serving a life sentence for an unrelated murder. 

Howard, 46, admitted to and described the killing in court on Monday. 

"How did Marcus die?" asked Jonathan Potts, one of Johnson's attorneys. 

"Me and Phillip Campbell killed him on his front porch," Howard replied. 

Howard, who was 17 at the time of Boyd's murder, testified that he and Campbell dressed in black clothing and ski masks to rob Boyd's house because the victim owed drug money to another friend. When they found Boyd and another man on his front porch, Howard said, he grabbed him. As they tussled, he said, Campbell shot Boyd in the side. Then, Howard shot him in the back of the head and neck. They didn't shoot Elking, he said, because they did not think he could identify them. 

"Was Lamar Johnson there?" Potts asked. 

"No," Howard replied. 

He said that he decided to confess to the killing in 2002, while he was in jail on other charges, to try to clear Johnson's name. 

"I was trying to right my wrongs that I had done him," Howard said.

But Loesch cited inconsistencies in Howard's story when she cross-examined him. Earlier affidavits signed by Howard claim that he and Campbell ran back to Howard's home after the killing, and that Campbell stayed in the house for three days, but Howard now says that Campbell left his home on the night of the killing,

Howard said that while he can't remember every detail of the murder that occurred nearly three decades ago, "what I can tell you is I shot him."

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner opened an investigation into Johnson's case in collaboration with the Midwest Innocence Project about 10 years ago. Their investigation alleged misconduct by a prosecutor, falsified police reports and perjured testimony, according to the Associated Press. But the former prosecutor who investigated the case rejected Gardner's allegations. 

In March of 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court denied Johnson's request for a new trial, saying that Gardner lacked the authority to seek one so many years after his conviction. This led to the passage of a state law that makes it easier for prosecutors to get new hearings in cases where there is new evidence of a wrongful conviction. Kevin Strickland, who served more than 40 years for a Kansas City triple homicide, was freed last year thanks to the new law, the AP wrote. 

Last week, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt asked the court to sanction Gardner, claiming that she failed to inform the attorney general's office of gunshot residue that was found on a jacket located in the trunk of Johnson's car after the arrest. Gardner accused Schmitt of grandstanding, saying that she failed to turn over the lab report due to an overlooked email. 

Johnson said it isn't his jacket; Gardner's office told KMOV that the bright red jacket has nothing to do with the case because the assailants were wearing all black at the time. 

"I think a lot of politics was involved in this case, a lot of pushback," Johnson told the outlet. "I don't think it was even about me. I think it's about bigger things. But it still doesn't change the fact that I'm affected by it, you know?"