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To win a murder conviction, police and prosecutors made up evidence and secretly paid a witness, St. Louis DA finds

Lamar Johnson, in the white pants, is pictured in a 1994 photo lineup. (St. Louis Circuit Attorney) ((St. Louis Circuit Attorney))

The state’s theory stretched the physical limits of the human body. Somehow on the night of Oct. 30, 1994, Lamar Johnson left his friend’s apartment, traveled three miles to Marcus Boyd’s front porch with one other man, killed Boyd, fled on foot and arrived back at the apartment to continue socializing with friends — all in “no more than five minutes."

Now, the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office says it knows how prosecutors managed to convince a jury it was true: Police and prosecutors made up the evidence, according to a 67-page motion seeking to vacate Johnson’s first-degree murder conviction and grant him a new trial after 24 years behind bars.

The accompanying investigative report, made public this week, describes a staggering amount of misconduct on the part of homicide detectives and prosecutors that convicted Johnson and sent him to prison for life with no possibility of parole.

Not only did detectives write police reports containing invented statements from witnesses, the report found, but the St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office also made secret payments to the single eyewitness, who was pressured into making the false identification that would ultimately seal Johnson’s fate, according to the report.

And authorities did all of this, investigators found, in the face of “overwhelming” evidence that Johnson was an innocent man. He has insisted on his innocence the entire time he has been behind bars.

“The violation of Johnson’s constitutional rights enabled the State of Missouri to obtain a conviction and sentence of life without the possibility of parole against Johnson despite overwhelming evidence of innocence,” the circuit attorney’s office wrote. “The undisclosed secret payments to the sole eyewitness in a case that was undeniably thin fatally undermines the reliability of the verdict.”

The case is a striking example of how serious misconduct by law enforcement can be brought to the surface by a conviction integrity unit, which progressive district attorney’s offices across the country have set up to investigate potential wrongful convictions. In this case, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner created the unit with the help of a federal grant in December and in partnership with the Midwest Innocence Project, which had already been working on Johnson’s case since 2008.

In the report, the unit describes the evolution of the police investigation as “a series of circumstances that are alarming and offend the most basic notions of fairness and justice.” By contrast, the trial prosecutor, Dwight Warren, who is no longer with the office, described the report as “nonsense,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

The investigation into Johnson’s case found that a single homicide detective, Joseph Nickerson, authored four false police reports describing possible motives for Johnson to kill Boyd, such as that Johnson had a drug beef with Boyd. Years later, all four witnesses would review the reports and swear under oath that they never said what Nickerson attributed to them. The only eyewitness, Greg Elking, failed to identify Johnson several times before pointing to him at trial. He would be paid more than $4,000 for his cooperation — payments not discovered until the CIU’s investigation in 2019.

The men actually responsible for killing Boyd in a botched robbery would reveal themselves much sooner. They confessed as early as 1996 and 2002, saying in sworn affidavits that Johnson was not involved. Johnson continued to languish in prison anyway.

“I know Lamar Johnson is innocent of that crime because I was there and Lamar Johnson was not there,” the confessed shooter, James Howard, stated 17 years ago.

The homicide investigation seemed poisoned from the start, investigators found. Before police even interviewed the sole eyewitness, police already wrote down the name of a prime suspect: Johnson. The intel appeared based on little more than a hunch from the victim’s girlfriend. She had told police she couldn’t see the killers’ faces: They were wearing ski masks.

Around 9 p.m. the night of the shooting, they had ambushed the porch where Boyd was sitting with Elking, who had come to pay a small drug debt. Presented with a photo array of suspects, Elking told Nickerson he never saw the shooters’ faces either. But Nickerson told him that if he cooperated as a witness, the state would help his family financially. Elking agreed.

He did not positively identify Johnson, saying only that his eyes looked “familiar.” In the police report, however, Nickerson wrote that Elking did identify him — a fabrication he used to support an arrest warrant for Johnson, the investigation found.

Immediately after his arrest, Johnson explained his alibi to Nickerson, insisting he was with his girlfriend at their friend’s apartment and that there were phone records to prove it. Curiously, a second detective, Ralph Campbell, interviewed Johnson just minutes after Nickerson and claimed in a police report that Johnson made a cryptic confession, claiming Johnson said he “let the white guy live,” in reference to Elking. The conviction integrity unit believes this confession was fabricated too.

“The CIU does not believe that Johnson volunteered a confession to Detective Campbell after he denied involvement at arrest, during questioning, throughout trial, and for the twenty-four years thereafter,” prosecutors wrote.

Police never investigated his alibi, the investigation found. Instead, they put him in a photo lineup and hauled Elking in to ID him. On the way to the station, Nickerson told him that Johnson was believed to be responsible for a number of unsolved homicides in the city, and so Elking’s cooperation was “critical to providing justice for Boyd and his family,” according to the report.

Elking failed three times to identify Johnson.

And yet still, this was not the end of Elking’s cooperation. In the elevator, police wrote in a report, Elking confided in Nickerson that he “wanted to do the right thing” but that he was “scared” and “needed time to think about what I should do.” The police report states that Elking then admitted he “lied” about the previous wrong identifications, and now was ready to make the right ID. He allegedly then chose Johnson and Phil Campbell, the co-defendant who confessed.

Years later, first in a confessional to his pastor and then to prosecutors, Elking would explain that Nickerson gave him the answers — and that he went along out of fear, a guilt that weighed on his conscience until 2003, when he told his pastor he had to lift it.

“I regret not coming to you or anyone else sooner,” he wrote. “I don’t believe it was the right thing to do then & more so now.”

On Elking’s false ID alone, bolstered by Nickerson’s false reports from witnesses on a possible motive and a jailhouse informant who had incentive to lie, a jury convicted Johnson in July 1995. Remarkably, prosecutors did not dispute his alibi. They simply argued that, in the five minutes Johnson left the apartment, he had time to travel three miles to Boyd’s home to kill him and then come back.

Despite all of this, Johnson lost at least six appeals in state and federal courts — even when Johnson presented the two sworn affidavits from the confessed killers.

Part of the problem was that St. Louis Circuit Attorney and St. Louis Police Department continued to block him from obtaining information. When he filed an open records request in 2009 seeking any payments the circuit attorney or police department made to witnesses, he was told there were no records.

In fact, the conviction integrity unit found 63 pages of information about the secret arrangement plus a handwritten ledger describing more than a dozen payments totaling $4,241, apparently to fund housing and moving expenses. The payments began on Nov. 4, 1994 — five days after the shooting and the very first day Nickerson interviewed Elking.

“The documentation in the State’s file describes Elking as an “essential witness” and the CIU agrees,” prosecutors wrote in the investigative report. “Without Elking, there was no case against Johnson.”

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Attempts to reach Nickerson and Warren were unsuccessful.

The motion for a new trial filed Monday makes clear that prosecutors consider Johnson an innocent man and do not intend to retry Johnson for murder should a judge grant the motion.

The unit said it tracked down some of the old jurors in Johnson’s case, presenting them with the findings. All of them said they would have never convicted them, had they known the facts.

On Tuesday, the Midwest Innocence Project said in a statement that it “praises Circuit Attorney Gardner and the CIU for their work to correct an injustice.”

“After more than twenty years,” said Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, “the system is finally being held accountable for its failures in Lamar Johnson’s case.”

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