Does an elected prosecutor have the authority to correct the wrongful convictions of their predecessors?
This week, 45 elected prosecutors from around the country signed and submitted a brief to the Missouri Supreme Court fervently arguing that they did.
“When an innocent person becomes enmeshed in the gears of that system, the officials empowered by the public to turn on the machinery are not powerless to turn it off,” they state in an amicus curiae brief filed on Monday, February 10. “It would be a perverse system indeed if elected representatives may ask the courts to imprison innocent citizens but not to free them.”
The brief was submitted as part of the Lamar Johnson case, which the Supreme Court is currently reviewing and is being closely watched by elected prosecutors nationwide. It’s a case dredged up by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
Twenty-four years ago, Johnson was convicted of murdering Marcus Boyd on October 30, 1994, though evidence shows that Johnson was at a friend’s house and would not have been able to commit the crime. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In July, Gardner’s prosecutors asked Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan to set aside Johnson’s 1995 murder conviction. Gardner’s team alleges that former prosecutors and police fabricated evidence to get the conviction of an innocent man.
Hogan brought in Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt to represent the state, which is what voters elected Gardner to do. Schmitt has argued all the way to the state’s highest court that Gardner doesn’t have the authority to ask for a new trial if she thinks an innocent person has spent more than two decades in prison wrongfully.
The Missouri Supreme Court’s ruling in the Johnson case would impact other prosecutors throughout the state, including St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, who have also established a Conviction Integrity Unit.
“If allowed to stand, this decision would not only leave Lamar Johnson behind bars, but create a severe barrier to justice for any person wrongfully convicted in Missouri by blocking the ability of prosecutors to ask courts to remedy such cases, thus rendering all conviction integrity efforts across the state null and void,” said Bell, a signatory to the brief.
Through 2018, Conviction Integrity Units have been responsible for producing 344 exonerations nationwide, according to the brief.
“A loss in this case could also send a message to those who are trying to undermine the work of elected prosecutors nationally who are looking to increase accountability,” said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution. “And it could embolden those who are trying to push back on these reform-minded leaders.”
The brief argues that nationally Conviction Integrity Units have grown into a “recognized benchmark” for local prosecution offices, and they are now “well-settled vehicles” for reviewing and seeking to overturn convictions when there is evidence of actual innocence or misconduct by prosecutors or law enforcement. By the end of 2018, such units operated in 44 jurisdictions across the country, including in many of amici’s own cities and counties.
“Although prosecutors serve as legal representatives of the state, they are not one-dimensional advocates charged with obtaining convictions and resisting the reversal of a wrongful conviction at all costs,” the brief states.
Gardner has faced fierce resistance during her tenure as prosecutor, and she recently filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of St. Louis, the St. Louis Police Officers Association and other individuals. The lawsuit argues that the resistance and attacks aimed at ousting her from office are racially motivated. The pushback to Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit is a reflection of the pushback she is facing, one signatory said.
“Allowing politics to determine whether relief is granted or denied in a case where there are credible claims of innocence and serious concerns about prosecutorial and law enforcement misconduct is unconscionable,” said Andrew Warren, state attorney of Florida’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit, another signatory to the brief. “This is a matter of justice for Lamar Johnson and the integrity of our system.”