Wesley Bell

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell leads a senior staff meeting on April 29, 2019

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell’s new Conviction and Incident Review Unit has sprung its first wrongly convicted person from prison.

In 1996, a St. Louis County jury found that Lawrence Callanan shot John Schuh to death in Spanish Lake. The St. Louis County Circuit Court sentenced Callanan to life without the possibility of probation or parole for murder and 30 years for armed criminal action.

Now 24 years later on May 29, the Missouri Supreme Court issued an order overturning Callanan’s conviction. The order relies on a report prepared by a special master appointed by the court, which details serious misconduct committed by a former prosecutor in this office. 

“The report found that the prosecutor did things that no prosecutor should do: he encouraged a witness to withhold the truth, he failed to alert defense counsel to exculpatory evidence, and he allowed or encouraged a witness to testify falsely,” Bell said in a press release.

There was only one witness. Before trial, the eyewitness confessed to the prosecutor in the case that she may have, in fact, seen a second car fleeing the scene. The prosecutor told her not to “volunteer” this information unless “specifically asked to do so.” 

“Without her coached testimony, there would have been no case against Mr. Callanan,” said Cheryl Pilate and Lindsay Runnels, counsel for Callanan. “We are grateful that the Missouri Supreme Court recognized the violations of Mr. Callanan’s constitutional rights, leading to his release from prison after nearly 25 years.”

Bell’s new Conviction and Incident Review Unit — which he established last year to review allegations of wrongful convictions — recommended to Bell that no further charges be pursued against Callanan. Bell has accepted that recommendation.  On Tuesday, June 2, he filed an order informing the court that he would not refile charges against Callanan. 

Despite this first win, the case does little to clarify the role and authority of Bell’s Conviction and Incident Review Unit. In fact, it shows exactly what the problem is: the county prosecutor currently has no authority in righting past wrongful convictions prosecuted by his office. As part of Callanan’s case, Bell sent a letter to the high court, supporting his release.

“The court interpreted it as an amicus brief,” said Dana Mulhauser, chief of the Conviction and Incident Review Unit. “But that’s what the problem is. ‘Amicus’ means friend of the court. We are not a friend of the court in this situation. We have an integral role to play. The idea we are treated in the same way the retired Candlemakers of America are treated when they intervene in a case, it’s not right.”

Mulhauser, a former federal civil-rights prosecutor, leads the unit and operates fully independently, answering only to Bell. In February, the unit began accepting applications from individuals convicted in St. Louis County who claim they are innocent or that their convictions resulted from deliberate misconduct by law enforcement. The application is available on Bell’s website at tinyurl.com/conviction-integrity.

So far, they received about 100 inquiries and 50 completed applications. But the future of those cases is unclear.

Lamar Johnson in limbo

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 on April 14.

The question revolves around the case of Lamar Johnson. Gardner believes that Johnson is innocent of a 1994 murder for which the office convicted him, and she 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.

“All we are asking for is a court to hear this evidence,” said attorney Daniel Scott Harawa, a professor at Washington University School of Law, arguing on behalf of the circuit attorney on April 14.

The Supreme Court’s pending decision has the ability to render powerless the newly established Conviction Integrity Units in Gardner’s and Bell’s offices – or to affirm them.

“All we’re saying is we want to be able to get in front of the trial court for a hearing,” Mulhauser said.

Even in the states that already have a mechanism for elected prosecutors to bring forth wrongful conviction cases, they only recommend about 20 cases out of thousands of petitions, she said. 

“This is not a willy nilly undoing of the criminal justice system,” Mulhauser said. “This is fixing very specific and very egregious wrongs. It shouldn’t take the Supreme Court hiring a special master for each and every one of these cases to make that happen.”

Aside from wrongful convictions, the unit also independently investigates and prosecutes allegations of excessive force and other wrongdoing by law enforcement. It has exclusive prosecutorial authority over all police shootings and other allegations of police misconduct in the county. 

Regarding the Callanan case, Bell said, “We feel for the family of Johnny Schuh, who have had to live without him for a quarter-century. A justice system that works outside the bounds of the law does not benefit victims.”

For more information about St. Louis County’s Conviction and Incident Review Unit and to apply to have a case or incident reviewed, visit https://tinyurl.com/conviction-integrity.

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