Beginnings: On Lamar, Letter-Writing, and the Need to Lie to Speak the Truth
March 12, 2021 – David R. Weiss
I barely know Lamar, but after what had just happened I knew it was time to write him a letter. I just didn’t realize how … weird … it would feel to need to lie in order to get my letter to him.
This is a story that has multiple beginnings. Here’s one.
I “met” Lamar in 2017 through Diane who I’d met five years earlier through Margaret (my wife) after they met as co-workers in the Minneapolis Public Health Department. Margaret and Diane are about the same age and became fast friends while working together. They kept in touch when Diane left the Health Department to do a master’s degree in social work down in New Mexico. (That’s where she met Lamar, who’s actually been in Missouri the whole time, but that’s another beginning.) Margaret and Diane just clicked, as friends sometimes do, so even though she was over a thousand miles away we decided to go visit her. That was in January 2017. We didn’t meet Lamar (I don’t think he was even mentioned) during our visit. She introduced us to him nine months later in an email.
Diane had met Lamar through Wayne, a friend of hers at church in New Mexico. Wayne had known Lamar for twenty years by then. He was definitely NOT trying to “set them up”; at one point he simply shared Lamar’s recent Toastmasters speech, prompting Diane to ask for Lamar’s address so she could let him know directly how much it moved her. She began her first letter, “Dear Mr. Johnson,”—and the rest, as they say, is history. Except in this case, it’s as much future as history.
You see, Lamar remains in prison, still waiting for his freedom.
I never met Wayne, so I don’t know much about how he met Lamar. I understand he started writing to Lamar through a prison ministry pen pal project while he lived in St. Louis. That was back in 1997, just a couple years after Lamar wound up in prison, and they’ve been writing ever since.
Well, imagine the joy-concern-delight-consternation that Margaret and I felt when Diane wrote us in September 2017 to share, with measured excitement, that she was moving from New Mexico to Missouri because she was about to complete her degree and had just landed a job there … so she could be close to a man she’d been corresponding with … who just happened to be in Missouri … in prison … sentenced to life without parole … for murder. Which, and I’m quoting her email, “he DID NOT commit.” Right. Isn’t that what all prison pen pals say?
(That’s a horrid, but honest first reaction. I include it because otherwise people like to nominate me for sainthood, and sainthood is something I DID NOT commit.)
She included a picture of them, looking like a happy couple at prom in front of a cheesy scenic mountain backdrop, made all the more cheesy because you can see the tile floor at the bottom. And while Diane was dressed all cute (just one notch—barely—below “hot”), Lamar’s smile was doing its best to compensate for his standard prison-issue white t-shirt and gray sweats. Oh, and he’s black. I include that, because no slice of our history as a nation or our lives as individuals is untouched by racial messaging. None.
In 2018, after living and working for a year in Missouri to be closer to Lamar, Diane wound up back in Minnesota. Better wages for her work. Better support for her share of the journey.
Here’s another beginning.
October 30, 1994, Lamar was 20 years old when he ducked out of his girlfriend’s apartment to run to a nearby liquor store. He was gone 5 minutes—10 at the very most—a window of time verified by phoned records. But police claimed he was one of two men who shot and killed a third man over a drug dispute some three miles away and then fled on foot. This despite the fact that it would’ve been at least a 20-minute roundtrip car drive, not counting the time for the shooting itself. Lamar is not the first black man credited with superhuman feats—just long enough to be used to erase his mere humanity. Anyway, it’s a 5-minute window of time that’s now cost him more than 25 years behind bars.
I don’t know the whole saga. I’ve read a lot of it, but it’s a complicated sordid tale of police and prosecutorial misconduct, aided and abetted by faulty defense representation and ample racism, both personal and systemic. I offer this too-brief summary with reservations (which I’ll explain below) simply because it’s true.
Lamar has maintained his innocence all along. He was picked out of a line-up by a witness who failed three times to “correctly” identify him (both assailants were wearing full-head masks with openings only large enough for their eyes). Eventually, after a police officer told the witness which number in the line-up he was “supposed to pick”—and promised to pay him if he’d just pick the right number, he did. And it stuck. Well, it stuck when backed up by falsified police reports and other irregularities.
Over the years Lamar lost six appeals at the state and federal levels. Appeals hampered by agencies that refused to give him access to the very information that could have exonerated him years ago. Then again, at least one of those appeals DID include two sworn affidavits from the actual killers confessing to the crime. You’d almost think that the system is set up to keep a black man behind bars no matter what and no matter how he got there. And you’d be right.
In 2008, in yet another beginning, the Midwest Innocence Project took on Lamar’s case. (Wayne helped make that connection, too.) Even with a trained legal team it’s been a long frustrating battle. “Frustrating” doesn’t even come close. By now, 26 of Lamar’s 46 years have been unjustly—knowingly—stolen from him. I typed those words “frustrating battle,” and the moment my fingers paused, I despised them. We don’t have language adequate to name that mixture of grief-rage in the face of sheer bureaucratic evil. Sure, there are four-letter words to throw out as if by using crude language you can somehow make a stronger point. I think the best description would be to say it’s been a goddamn battle to find justice for Lamar. And while that employs an outright curse, it is at least an honest adjective. Because if there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that injustice sends God right over the edge.
And in 2018—yet one more beginning—the new Circuit Attorney for St. Louis launched a Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) for the precise purpose of reviewing past cases where a miscarriage of justice had been alleged. Lamar’s case was one of the first to be reviewed. In 2019 the CIU released a 70-page report detailing the extent to which Lamar had been railroaded for a crime he had NOTHING to do with. The Circuit Attorney herself followed the report immediately with a 67-page motion seeking to have Lamar’s verdict vacated and to give him a new trial, confident that he would be exonerated.
Thus far even her efforts have been thwarted. If I posted a picture of her, you’d notice that the St. Louis Circuit Attorney is black. The first black person to hold that position. If you tell me justice is blind, I’ll reply that in this case the judicial system must be peeking through the blindfold, because it’s determined that it’s not going to let a black woman free a black man. Or if it does, it will be only after throwing up as many roadblocks as possible.
The Attorney General opposed the Circuit Attorney’s motion, insisting she didn’t have the authority to go to court to correct a past injustice, even when that injustice was perpetrated by her own office decades ago. Better to “leave well-enough alone”—especially when “well enough” is no more than justice denied to a black man. He’s even—unbelievably—asserted that his role as Attorney General is to always defend the verdicts made based on past prosecutions—that somehow to question whether an injustice was done would contradict his role as the state’s top justice official. (That position even drew a rebuke from the Missouri Supreme Court.)
Over the past 18 months this argument, over whether the CIU or the Circuit Attorney or really anyone at all could actually get justice for Lamar, has stumbled its way to the Missouri Supreme Court. By now it’s not even really an argument over Lamar’s innocence. It’s more the justice system arguing—even while acknowledging his likely innocence—whether it’s appropriate, after a quarter century behind bars, to provide a venue that might set a black man free. And all the while his life is ticking away moment by moment just like yours and mine—except, of course, his is ticking away BEHIND BARS. (What a goddamned attitude. Sorry.)
I’ve lost track of the beginnings by now, but somewhere in here—during that long 18-month stretch—Margaret and I “met” Lamar “for real.” It was pre-pandemic—so, probably late fall/winter 2019. We had Diane over for dinner. After supper she got out her cell phone, excited to have us “really” meet Lamar, and we called him. Sitting at our dining room table, the four of us chatted amiably for about twenty minutes. “Amiably”—if that’s the right word for when three people who are free speak with a man who’s lived for 26 years with the state of Missouri’s knee pressed on on his neck. We were regularly reminded of that knee by a taped voice that came on every 4-5 minutes, “This call to a correctional facility is being monitored.”
I will say this, Lamar has learned to navigate the damning dimensions of his incarceration with good cheer, which is why “amiable” seemed a decent word at first glance. But I don’t want to turn him into a saint either. It’s possible that, after so many years of injustice he’s discovered that rage doesn’t serve him as well as calm. And I do think he was genuinely happy to meet us. AND—I am sure there are days that the circumstances of his life still kick him in the gut so hard that he’s left gasping for air. Which is why, after that phone call, we made a pledge that we’d write to Lamar.
Did I tell you how much I DID NOT commit sainthood? I made that pledge over a year ago. But it wasn’t until last week’s Missouri Supreme Court ruling on the Circuit Attorney’s motion that I finally made good on that pledge. Hell, the ruling came out on March 2, and it still took me a week after that to write the letter. That’s a bit of sorry-ass sainthood if you ask me, so keep your praise to yourself.
As you might’ve guessed by now, the court denied her motion to open a pathway to justice for Lamar. Okay, I do recognize there are genuine intricacies to our legal system. I acknowledge that persons of good will can parse legal codes and legislatives rules differently. But I also need to say that to read a Supreme court ruling that openly comments on Lamar’s likely innocent—after 26 years of being unjustly imprisoned—but still decides the Circuit Attorney just doesn’t have the right standing or the right process to correct that, so, too bad, “motion denied”—well, that just makes me want to swear all over again. And I’m willing to bet God let out a blue streak of holy curse words as well.
Never forget: Black Lives Matter.
So, Lamar and the Midwest Innocence Project, and the Circuit Attorney as well, are making still more beginnings. Because freedom. Because justice. Because life. Because love.
One last beginning (for now).
March 9, late, I crawl in bed and read a bit from my latest issue of The Sun. Inexplicably, providentially, serendipitously, the issue carries three separate pieces dealing with incarcerated persons. A memoir essay by a 67-year-old man recently released into a society hardly ready to welcome him back, least of all during as pandemic. A letter from a woman who met her husband via prison correspondence, each writing over 700 letters to the other during an 8-year stretch. And a letter from a man currently incarcerated in Virginia commenting on the peculiar gift of “words on a page—how you can see someone in their handwriting.” After that trifecta of late-night “nudges,” I tossed the magazine at the foot of my bed so that when I woke the following morning it would be there leering at me until I wrote my letter.
The next evening, I wrote my letter. By hand. I can’t recall the last time I hand wrote a six-page letter. Writing by hand like that shifts your relationship to time and to words. Without a “delete” key, I found myself pausing more often to let my words sort and settle inside myself before putting them on the page. That’s not to overstate my eloquence. This was hardly a soul-searching message or a philosophical treatise. More a “Hi … sorry about what happened in court … here’s a short glimpse into the life of a white man you’ve never met” … more that kind of humble-mundane-awkward-honest letter. Still, I wanted it—this flimsy paper bridge—to carry my best humanity to him, and to affirm his best humanity right there. Across a chasm that neither of us could fully fathom, but which, let’s be honest, has cost him infinitely more than me.
Letter done, Margaret added a quick note promising to write him next month. Then I turn to seal it and address it. That’s when I’m caught off guard by the necessary lie. It hit me HARD. The Jefferson City Correctional Center sits at 8200 No More Victims Road. Think about that. The only way I can send a message of simple hope, simple truth, simple humanity to a man who’s more a VICTIM of injustice than just about anyone I know—the only way I can get that message to him, is to “affirm” this lie—NO MORE VICTIMS ROAD—on the outside of the envelope to ensure it finds its way to him … at the institution that victimizes him with every beat of his heart.
Which brings me finally back to the reservation I alluded to above, when I summarized Lamar’s case. He “happens” to be innocent. But I’d wager for 90% of those incarnated, that’s an irrelevant detail when it comes to this street address. Almost everyone in prison, whether “justly” or “unjustly” there, is a victim. First, of the circumstances that drove them to crime: very few persons actually “delight” in crime. Their first offense might be rooted in a legacy of trauma, a history of desperation, a moment of passion, or peer-fueled foolishness. From there—especially if you’re black—the state steps in and does its bureaucratic best to bury you behind bars, reduced to a number, dehumanized in multiple ways. Second, even the “guilty” are subjected to conditions that do little or nothing to “rehabilitate” them. (This is complex—worth a whole other essay. I just don’t want Lamar’s innocence to become the only reason for outrage.) Prisons don’t make societies safer; they merely make them more punitive, more racist, and more inequitable. They effectively make everyone victims.
And no street address can make it otherwise.
Prison abolition is holy work; not just for Lamar’s sake, but for yours and for mine. Another world is waiting to be born. And few things stir such joy in God’s heart as this work.
In the meantime, I wrote the lie on the outside of the envelope in order to get the truth on the letter inside to Lamar: so that my humanity could touch his humanity. “I can’t likely make much of a difference in gaining you your freedom. But I nevertheless marshal my rage and hope (alongside so many others, including you). Now and then Margaret and I light a candle and say a prayer. Not because we believe in some “magic,” but because we do believe in a moral universe, with an arc that bends—at length and by often unnoticed means—toward justice. Toward freedom. Yours.”
Which is the beginning that I’m really waiting for.
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This essay isn’t a “call to action.” It’s more a simple exercise in truth-telling for myself. But truth, well told, often leaves you wanting to act. If you want to act, here are a couple things you might do.
- Let yourself feel. Incarceration is geared to dehumanize persons. Simply sitting with the emotions that rise for you in this essay matters. It’s uses your empathy—an emotional muscle that gets stronger when it’s exercised.
- Join me and Margaret in setting aside regular time to “lean into” this. We plan to do this (at least) the first Tuesday of each month—chosen simply because the latest Supreme Court ruling against Lamar’s freedom came on the first Tuesday of March. It’s a minimal, doable commitment. We plan to light a candle, say a short prayer, and then spend time learning more about Lamar’s case or about other Innocence clients or about prison abolition. Whatever time commitment and approach works for you. Small steps repeated make for movement.
- Support the Midwest Innocence Project. The first two steps are essential “inner work.” This might the most important “outer work” you can do because it provides material support to the trained legal team that is working on Lamar’s behalf—and for others. You can learn more about their work and support them at www.themip.org. Midwest Innocence Project, 3619 Broadway Blvd., Suite 2, Kansas City, MO 64111.
- Learn more about Lamar’s story. As I say above, it’s a complicated sordid saga, with many of the recent twists and turns “hidden” behind dense legalese.
+ This Washington Post piece gives a good big picture overview—as of July 2019. It includes links to the 2018 CIU report and the 2018 motion to vacate the sentence and provide a new trial: www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/07/26/st-louis-lamar-johnson-conviction-police-scandal.
+ This St. Louis Post-Dispatch article reports on the Missouri Supreme Courts March 2 decision, and includes a link to the text of the decision itself: www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/missouri-supreme-court-denies-new-trial-in-lamar-johnsons-1994-murder-case/article_4419a6e8-b5e8-502d-99d3-7e8cb2629805.html.
+ And the Midwest Innocence Project website has a page dedicated to Lamar’s case with many other links: www.themip.org/clients/lamarjohnson. (Reading the background on other cases is useful, so you begin to see how hard the “justice” system works to protect and perpetuate injustices once they occur.)
+ Lamar became my “personal” point of entry into this issue. But, of course, it’s MUCH bigger than him. The Innocence Project (www.innocenceproject.org) is a now a global network of sixty-seven organizations working to exonerate persons unjustly incarcerated. The Midwest Innocence Project is one member of this network. Another branch, The Great Northern Innocence Project (www.greatnorthinnocenceproject.org), serves persons in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
- Finally, perhaps the most challenging avenue of action is to learn about prison abolition itself. Unimaginable to most of us (What would we do with all the prisoners? Perhaps see them as “neighbors”?), there are compelling arguments, unknown history, increasing evidence, and inspiring visions that ALL suggest that prisons are part of a larger problem, not a regrettable but essential dimension of our life together. This is a complex issue, and I am far from an expert on it. But I’ve read enough to believe that there is good news in prison abolition. And, as a Christian, I’m committed to lifting up good news—gospel—wherever I come across it. Here’s one place to begin learning: www.abolitionjournal.org/studyguide. [I am NO expert on abolition, but I have posted a series of theological reflections on it. You can find my first essay, which includes a link to the other five here: Come This Wilderness.]
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.