Do elected prosecutors in Missouri have the power to investigate wrongful convictions and ask for a new trial when they feel a person is innocent?
That is the question that attorneys for St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner and MIssouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt debated before the Missouri Supreme Court today (April 14.)
The question revolves around the case of Lamar Johnson. Gardner believes he is innocent of a 1994 murder for which her office convicted him and has asked for a new trial. Schmitt has argued all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court that Gardner does not have the authority to bring new evidence before a court in an old conviction, though Johnson has other options for seeking relief.
The Supreme Court’s decision has the ability to render powerless the newly established Conviction Integrity Units, which investigate possible wrongful convictions, in Gardner’s and St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell’s offices.
“What is the circuit attorney’s obligation in seeking to undo a wrongful conviction?” said attorney Daniel Harawa, arguing on behalf of the circuit attorney. “An elected prosecutor must have the ability to present the evidence that she has found credible.”
Harawa, an assistant professor of Practice and director of the Appellate Clinic at the Washington University School of Law, explained that Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit conducted a yearlong investigation in the Johnson case, and Gardner must have the ability to present this evidence to a court.
“All we are asking for is a court to hear this evidence,” he said.
The attorney general’s representative argued that Gardner could investigate wrongful convictions, but then she would have to turn over the evidence to the people sitting in prison and their lawyers for them to present it in court themselves. Gardner could be a “witness” in their plea for innocence, according to the AG’s rep.
The oral arguments were conducted remotely, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the judges did not introduce themselves before speaking. One Supreme Court judge said, “That’s not a very efficient mechanism. We are much more likely to reach the truth of the matter if the prosecutor is the party that can raise the issues to the court.”
The judges asked the AG’s rep. several times what mechanism prosecutors have to bring forth new evidence to be reviewed in a court. He replied that there is no current mechanism to do that.
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.
As Harawa pointed out, the eyewitness evidence – since recanted – was about a masked gunman seen only briefly at night.
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 Schmitt to represent the state, which is what voters elected Gardner to do.
Through 2018, Conviction Integrity Units across the country had been responsible for producing 344 exonerations nationwide, according to a brief submitted to the Supreme Court that was signed by 45 prosecutors throughout the country.
“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,” the brief states, “they are not one-dimensional advocates charged with obtaining convictions and resisting the reversal of a wrongful conviction at all costs.”