Lamar Johnson: Held for Naught

Lamar Johnson: Held for Naught
February 22, 2023 – David R. Weiss

“THEREFORE, for the reasons stated about, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the motion of the Circuit Attorney of the 22nd Judicial Court filed herein for the benefit of Lamar Johnson is GRANTED.

“The conviction of Lamar Johnson in State v. Lamar Johnson, Cause No. 22941-3706A-01 is hereby set aside and held for naught.”

so ordered: David C. Mason, Judge, February 14, 2023, Missouri Circuit Court, 22nd Judicial Circuit (City of St. Louis)
—Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order (sic)
[There really ought to be an Oxford comma here!
These are not “conclusions of ‘law and order’,” but
“conclusions of law,” followed by the judge’s “order.
Oh well.]

Screen capture – Fox 2 St. Louis News live courtroom camera – February 14, 2023. (

The entire opinion runs 46 pages, but the words above were the only ones Judge Mason read aloud from the bench on February 14. Lamar let an enormous trembling sigh escape, then listened, his hands folded, his lips pressed against his thumbs, his cheeks twitching with the emotion racing through his entire frame. After these words the judge swiftly declared, “This hearing is adjourned.” And so it was.

“Held for naught.” The judge was referring to Lamar’s conviction. That, henceforth, his murder conviction should be considered as nothing. But in the sentence right before those words, the judge had written something even more: “this court finds that there is clear and convincing evidence of Lamar Johnson’s actual innocence.”

In other words, it is, IN FACT, Lamar Johnson who has been, for the past 28 years, “held for naught.” Held over nothing. Imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. But also, considered as nothing: simply one more black man thrown behind bars. And if he wasn’t guilty of murder, well, he was surely guilty of being black.

I first wrote of my friendship with Lamar Johnson two years ago. We “met” about six years ago. Through a mutual friend; then through letters; eventually through a couple phone calls. You can read that story here ( Sometime this spring we’ll meet in person. I can already imagine our arms trembling as we reach forward to hug. Our cheeks twitching with emotion. Our faces about to break in two for the width of our smiles.

But today I want to ask, how is it that a man can be held for naught—and for so long. In Lamar’s case, he was held for 28 of his 49 years. And while his freedom is surely cause for joy, there is no reset button to turn the clock back.

It’s true, Lamar was no “saint” at 21. A small-time drug dealer back then (to be fair, small time drug dealing was practically a “vo-tech track” for black youth systemically prevented from accessing the American Dream), he grew up in prison, adding not simply years, but maturity and the wisdom that comes by choosing life and hope in the face of persistent injustice. But sainthood ought not be the prerequisite for freedom. And to have 28 years of his life stolen by the state is hardly a fair price for the maturity and wisdom he’s coming out with. Would you take that deal?!

So, how did this happen? To answer that, I’ll draw on the judge’s own words. As he asked the bailiff to deliver two copies of his final opinion to each of the counsels’ respective tables, he said, “I urge each and every last one of you to take your time in reading the opinion.” I did. And, although there is much more to Lamar’s story than those 46 pages, they do lay bare an anatomy of injustice.

Here is Judge Mason’s opening observation (italics are mine): “Johnson was convicted of the murder of Markus Boyd (“Boyd”) that occurred on October 30, 1994. No physical evidence connected Johnson to the murder, and Johnson had an alibi. The State’s theory of the crime was that Johnson and Phillip Campbell committed the crime together. At trial, the State did not present evidence of a motive.” (Opinion, p. 2).

No evidence, no motive, and an alibi. Even when it’s a black man involved, it takes real intention to put him in prison on those terms.

Well, the State did have an eyewitness, James Elking. “Elking’s identification [of Johnson] was the State’s only direct evidence. During the evidentiary hearing [December 2022] in this matter, Dwight Warren, the trial prosecutor, described the case as ‘iffy’ without Elking’s identification. No other direct evidence linked Johnson to the crime.” (Opinion, p. 3) In fact, in that December hearing Warren “testified he would not have proceeded with the case if he did not have the testimony of Elking.” (Opinion, p. 11)

However, as Judge Mason details at length, Elking was—even by his own admission—hardly a star witness. There were multiple problems with his original testimony at the 1995 trial.

He failed to identify anyone linked to the crime in the three line-ups he was shown (two of which included Lamar; the other included Campbell, second suspect). In fact, he only managed to identify both suspects on a fourth attempt, after telling the detective he “wanted to be helpful, but needed to think about his family”—and after the detective indicated to him which two suspects the police had in mind. For that “helpfulness” he received an initial payment of $250 and subsequent payments totaling more than $4000 “to help take care of his family.” (Opinion, pp. 7-11) Neither his original inability to identify Lamar, nor the compensation he received in exchange for identifying Lamar were disclosed to Lamar’s defense attorney prior to the original trial—despite “the long-established duty of the prosecutor to fully disclose even impeaching evidence to the defense.” (Opinion, pp. 28, 45)

Even though both assailants were wearing dark clothes and full face-covering black ski-masks with only a slit for the eyes—and the fact that it was 9pm in late October (approximately three hours after sunset) on an unlit porch—Elking decided he could identify Lamar because of a “lazy eye,” a supposed feature that seemingly only he could see. Lamar Johnson does not have a “lazy eye.” None of the arresting officers reported it. No one with medical training attested to it. At the original trial no “universally accepted standard for what constitutes a lazy eye” was provided to the jury. Yet, without objection from Lamar’s defense, this was asserted as the basis of Elking’s confidence he was fingering the right man. Judge Mason himself confirmed that, having carefully observed Lamar throughout the 5-day hearing in December 2022, “there was nothing so distinctive about either eye” that it could be considered the basis of a reliable identification. (Opinion, pp. 12-13, 17-19)

Moreover, the Missouri Supreme Court has set very specific standards for jurors to consider in assessing the reliability of eyewitness testimony: seventeen of them. The judge goes through all seventeen, point-by-point, and identifies NINE standards by which Elking’s testimony could be found wanting. From poor lighting to angle of vision to the fact Elking didn’t know Lamar to racial difference (Elking is white) to stress, uncertainty, inconsistency, and several more. These official court instructions even specify that “the state has the burden of proving the accuracy of the identification of the defendant to you, the jury, beyond a reasonable doubt before you may find [him] [her] guilty.” Yet, with nine clear reasons to question his reliability as an witness, the jury still found him credible beyond a reasonable doubt. (Opinion, pp. 14-22)

Why would the jury have found such an eyewitness credible against these odds? In part because the State also had a jail house informant who testified that he heard Lamar implicitly confess to the murder in a nearby holding cell—although he could not see Lamar, did not know Lamar, and therefore could not have distinguished Lamar’s voice from anyone else’s. Once again, despite this assertion being nothing more than “hearsay”—it lacked any “foundation that the statement was in fact made by the defendant” and was therefore “inadmissible due to being speculative and unduly prejudicial”—Lamar’s counsel did not object. As a result, the judge writes, this bit of unsubstantiated and unchallenged jailhouse hearsay likely became “the brick of certainty that caused the jury to believe Elking beyond a reasonable doubt” (Opinion, pp. 25-26).

Here, too, the judge notes that this informant’s extensive criminal history was not disclosed to the defense, who could have used it to challenge his reliability. Worse, he reports “there were statements by Mock [the informant] that could have been used in cross-examination to effectively impeach Mock’s testimony” (Opinion, pp. 27-28). Not only was Lamar’s defense denied access to information it should have received, it also failed to use what it did have to raise an effective defense for Lamar.

Thus, Judge Mason determined that “the Due Process deficiencies set forth above cause this Court to find constitutional error that undermine the confidence in the judgment of conviction against Lamar Johnson.” (Opinion, p. 29) Summing up, near the end of his opinion, and after reviewing the multiple deficiencies one more time, he writes, “All of these problems are not merely evidentiary, but cut to the heart of Johnson’s right to a fair trial.” (Opinion, p. 45) This says nothing about Lamar’s “actual innocence” (a legal standard) yet. It simply says that even if he were guilty, because of multiple missteps by the police, the prosecution, and his own defense, he did not receive a fair trial.

This would have been sufficient for the judge to order the original conviction to be “set aside and held for naught.” But the judge was not done.

From December 12-16, 2022, Judge Mason had held a weeklong “evidentiary hearing.” This took place after Lamar, the Midwest Innocence Project (who had represented him since 2008), and the office of Kimberly Gardner, the Saint Louis Circuit Attorney (who had been seeking his release since establishing a Conviction Integrity Unit in 2018) finally managed to navigate a near-mythic series of obstacles over many years—its own infuriating saga. Once a black man is in prison, the entire system conspires to hold onto him. No matter what.

But the hearing, when it finally happened, was revelatory.

The judge heard Elking recant his 1995 testimony—something he’d actually done years earlier in writing and under oath. (Opinion, p. 3) Elking further testified that he had initially told the detective that the skin color of the man he later identified as Lamar was “dark in color … just as dark as Judge Mason.” Lamar’s skin is unmistakably lighter than Judge Mason’s. He described feeling “pressured,” “intimidated,” and “bullied” into identifying Lamar. He explained “that he has been living with the guilt of his false identification for almost 30 years … and I’m telling you I—I just wish[,] I just wish I could change time.” (Opinion, pp. 30-35) Oof. Elking recanted his 1995 testimony years ago, but the state of Missouri was not interested in hearing that.

Judge Mason also heard testimony from James “BA” Howard. Of that he writes, “Simply put, Howard testified at the hearing that he and Phillip Campbell shot Boyd.” (Opinion, p. 36.) In fact, as the judge acknowledges, in years past both Howard and Campbell had already “come forward through letters and signed affidavits confessing that they were the two assailants who shot and killed Boyd. Both Howard and Campbell have confirmed that Johnson was not involved in the crime. Howard testified before the Court under oath as to his involvement. Campbell, who is now deceased, affirmed in multiple letters dating back to 1995 that he and Howard killed Boyd and that Johnson is innocent.” (Opinion, p. 4) I could have put that entire quote in italics for emphasis. Two men. Confessed. Multiple times. And called Lamar innocent. Beginning TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO.

The judge described how the details of the murder, contained in a letter Campbell wrote to Lamar in September 1995 were “consistent with” and “corroborate” details in Howard’s testimony in December 2022. He also cited this passage from Campbell’s 1995 letter to Lamar: “I don’t care if you didn’t have anything to do with killing Markus. You locked up for B.A. [Howard]. I’m just saying we were in the game [dealing drugs] and you know how the game go. B.A. just got lucky and didn’t get caught.” The judge interpreted this passage as “consistent with Howard testifying essentially that Johnson was locked up for Howard’s criminal act.” (Opinion, pp. 42-43)

Finally, based on the evidence of Elking’s and Howard’s testimony in December 2022 and the submission of Campbell’s letters, Judge Mason writes, “this Court finds there is clear and convincing evidence of Lamar Johnson’s actual innocence.” Actual. Innocence.

And there we arrive at the second “naught.” Not only should Lamar’s conviction be “held for naught.” In fact, for twenty-eight long years, Lamar himself was “held—incarcerated—for naught.” For nothing.

But there is also the third “naught.” It took Lamar, who stalwartly, consistently—incessantly—proclaimed his innocence from day one, it took him twenty-eight years to even get a hearing to consider these matters. Because as a black man, from the moment he was was picked up by the police he was himself “held for naught”: regarded as nothing.

I am overjoyed at Lamar’s release. But this is the most damning truth. Lamar Johnson happened to be innocent. And lest you imagine that I’ve just provided a litany of all the things that “went wrong” in a system otherwise geared for justice, I have to tell you plainly: the police-prison-“justice” system is designed to deliver injustice and cloak it in the language of ideals. It was built to oppress the poor. That’s its job.

What I have described here is the system working exactly as intended. Locking up those deemed “less than.” Erasing lives. Holding persons “for naught.” Oh, sometimes, the system has the “benefit” of a person’s guilt, but even then, the goal is the erasure of humanity—usually, black or brown, and almost always poor humanity.

It is undeniably important to work for and then celebrate the exoneration and release of those who are innocent. But when Jesus announced the beginning of his ministry, he did not say, “I have been anointed [made Christ] to proclaim release to the innocent.” No, he declared that his anointing involved good news—gospel—for the poor, release for the captives, daylight for those imprisoned, and freedom for those oppressed. Lamar checks every one of those boxes—without even dragging his innocence into the picture.

Our entire carceral system is about social vengeance (so-called “punishment”) and social power. It is about dehumanizing others rather than humanizing them. Amplifying harm rather than restoring relationship. And it does not make us safe—it merely kicks the bucket of someone’s wounded humanity down the road for a while, often inflicting new wounds with every kick. We can—and must—do better.

I can’t wait to hug Lamar.

But I won’t be satisfied until no one … is held for naught.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at Read more at where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at

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