“I spent quite a bit of time on this, and these questions are not easy,” said St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason, when he announced his decision in the case at the Carnahan Courthouse Tuesday.
During a weeklong hearing in December, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner argued the innocence of Johnson, who was convicted of murdering his friend Marcus Boyd in 1995 in South St. Louis.
In August, Gardner filed a 59-page motion saying the two masked gunmen that night were Phillip Campbell and James Howard — not Johnson.
In a statement after Mason’s ruling, Gardner said the case was about “the ability of an elected prosecutor to address a manifest injustice.”
“Today the courts righted a wrong,” she said, later adding: “Most importantly, we celebrate with Mr. Johnson and his family as he walks out of the courtroom as a free man.”
“The court has spoken,” she said, “and no further action will be taken in this case.”
Throughout the December hearing, it became apparent that the only thing tying Johnson to the murder was eyewitness testimony from Greg Elking, Boyd’s former coworker who recanted his 1995 testimony on the stand on the hearing’s first day.
Later in the week, both the former prosecutor and police detective leading Johnson’s case testified they had no evidence connecting Johnson to the murder. The conviction rested solely on Elking picking Johnson out of a lineup based upon Elking’s memory of seeing the masked gunman’s eyes for a few seconds — and it took Elking four times of viewing the same lineup to do it.
“You had a witness in this case who told you…at best he could recognize maybe something about the eyes,” Mason said to former detective Joseph Nickerson during the December hearing. “Are you sure this isn’t a situation where you guys were in a little bit of a rush to make a conviction?”
The key witness in Johnson’s wrongful conviction hearing was Howard who confessed to the murder and said he and Campbell only meant to rob Boyd but things got out of hand.
He was adamant that Johnson had nothing to do with the killing.
The case began in 2019 when Gardner filed a motion for a new trial for Johnson, the first exoneration case for her conviction-integrity unit.
The effort was quashed when the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in March 2021 that prosecutors didn’t have the right to ask for a new trial in cases of innocence or wrongful prosecution.
A few months later, state legislators passed a law giving prosecutors a pathway to file motions to vacate sentences.
After the December hearing, Gardner said her office “fought tirelessly” for four years to present evidence of Johnson’s wrongful conviction.
“After this week’s hearing, it is clear why this case is so disturbing,” Gardner said in a statement last month. “The case is a reminder of the importance of ensuring that convictions are rooted in the law, justice, and fundamental fairness.”
The case shows, Gardner said, what happens when the criminal justice system is “blinded by the pursuit of a singular conviction.”
Legal experts throughout the state and nation watched the Johnson hearing.
Under the 2021 state law, if a prosecutor files a motion to vacate or set aside a judgment, the attorney general’s office could appear, question witnesses and make arguments at the hearing.
The Attorney General’s Office argued that Johnson was guilty, though they didn’t present any evidence of his guilt during the week-long hearing. Instead, they spent the week trying to discredit the testimonies of Johnson, Elking and Howard.
During the December hearing, Johnson told the judge he thought of Boyd as an “older brother.”
“To this day, I don’t know why people suspect that I killed him,” he said in December.
In a joint statement to the press, Johnson’s attorneys decried how hard it was to free an innocent man.