This week, we gathered on the steps of Attorney General Schmitt’s Office for Lamar Johnson, who has been held in prison for 25 years for a crime he did not commit. We joined lawyers who demand the state allow Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner address this injustice or risk the integrity of the Missouri criminal justice system.
We stood beside community organizations appalled by Attorney General Schmitt’s attempt to hold an innocent man captive rather than relinquish his power. And we watched as members of Johnson’s family mourned his absence from their lives for 25 years, a family that live in fear that the criminal justice system will fail them yet again. Together, we delivered a petition with over 25,000 signatures to Attorney General Schmitt pleading for justice for Lamar.
No one has contested Lamar Johnson’s innocence, even Attorney General Schmitt. Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit unearthed layers of lies and deception that led to his arrest and subsequent conviction: payoffs to the sole eyewitness, fabricated evidence, unconstitutional police interrogation tactics, and the withholding of crucial evidence that would have cleared his name. Nevertheless, Attorney General Schmitt continues to fight to keep Johnson imprisoned.
Schmitt hasn’t contested Johnson’s case on the merits – rather, he’s leaned on a minor technicality to make his case. In a patently laughable argument, Schmitt claims that Johnson can’t contest his sentence because he missed the window for doing so: no more than 15 days after sentencing. Never mind that the evidence that clears Johnson of the crime has only been recently discovered. Never mind that the Missouri Supreme Court explicitly allows the court to waive time limits in extraordinary cases precisely like this one.
It’s hard to fathom how an office that is supposed to stand for justice would attempt to keep an innocent person in prison based on a technicality. Lamar Johnson is not a chess piece in the petty politics of state prosecutors- he’s a person. He is a mild-mannered son and father and now a grandfather; a student who takes every educational opportunity he can to keep his mind fit; a devoted grandson who had to grieve his grandmother’s passing in a cell; a man who still feels hope that he will be free after 25 years.
Whatever political games Schmitt is playing, his motion to deny Johnson a chance at freedom displays a callous indifference to the humanity of individuals in a flawed justice system -- which explains how our justice system got to where it is.
It was politicians and prosecutors like Schmitt who fought each other to be the most aggressive, the most merciless, the most punitive when devising the architecture of mass incarceration. They have created the largest prison population in the world, with 2.3 million people in cages across the country. A system devised to incarcerate so many is not only flawed in principle but in execution, and there are few pieces of proof more damning than the number of individuals wrongfully in prison.
There have been over 2,522 exonerations of innocent people since 1989, and more are likely to be released as prosecutors like Gardner work to unravel the injustices of mass incarceration. Nor do these injustices affect everyone equally. Black people make up the majority of those wrongfully convicted — approximately 49%. Collectively, those who have been exonerated have lost 22,315 years of their lives.
That’s why we gathered in front of AG Schmitt’s Office on Tuesday. We will not sit by while the politics and power games of unscrupulous actors condemn one more person. We went to Schmitt’s office to demand that he immediately end his efforts to block Gardner’s motion for a new trial and join community advocates, legal experts, and the thousands following his story in securing Johnson’s freedom.
Scott Roberts is senior Criminal Justice Campaign director at Color of Change.