On July 12, 1995, Lamar Johnson’s future hopes were shattered as a judge doomed him to live out his days surrounded by the grim walls of a Missouri prison. Convicted of “first-degree murder and armed criminal action” (National Registry of Exonerations), Johnson spent twenty-eight years in prison, despite the fact that the eyewitness testimony introduced in his case was unreliable in addition to him having had an alibi.
Johnson was arrested for allegedly shooting a drug dealer by the name of Markus Boyd, and police claimed that he confessed to the crime during interrogation. Furthermore, multiple individuals who had been present at the time of the murder identified Johnson as one of the murderers, though both murderers had been wearing masks; individuals claimed that they had recognized Johnson’s distinctive “lazy eye” (National Registry of Exonerations). However, it was physically impossible for him to be at the scene of the crime, as he had been at a gathering with his girlfriend and only briefly been absent “for five minutes” (National Registry of Exonerations). The gathering was too far from the scene of the crime for him to have committed the murder within that time period. Furthermore, though witnesses mentioned Johnson’s lazy eye, he did not actually have one (National Registry of Exonerations), which should have led police to rule Johnson out as a suspect. Instead, he was sentenced to “life without parole” (National Registry of Exonerations) at Potosi Correctional Center.
After Johnson’s sentence began, other evidence came to light that further supported his claims of innocence. Another man confessed to the murder, while one of the individuals who had identified Johnson as the murderer “recant[ed] his testimony” (National Registry of Exonerations). Additionally, the man identified as Johnson’s accomplice in the murder completed a “sworn affidavit” (National Registry of Exonerations) emphasizing Johnson’s innocence. Clearly, many of the testimonies given throughout the trial were constructed on a shaky foundation of lies—a foundation that quickly collapsed once Johnson was imprisoned. So how was Johnson still convicted? One major factor led to Johnson’s wrongful incarceration: police misconduct. Officials involved in the case offered “financial assistance” (National Registry of Exonerations) to one witness and instructed him to lie, making his testimony meritless. The same witness also revealed through a sworn affidavit that police officers “told him what numbers to pick” (National Registry of Exonerations) in the line-up for eyewitness identification, also threatening him into compliance. Similarly, another witness in the case lied under oath and received a variety of benefits—including a shorter prison sentence—as a result of his testimony. The officer that testified for the prosecution in the trial also “knowingly presented false evidence” (National Registry of Exonerations) by misrepresenting the amount of time Johnson would have needed to commit the murder.
The corruption displayed by officers in Johnson’s case is not unusual; according to a report from the University of Colorado, Boulder, “official misconduct by police officers, prosecutors, or other government officials has been present in 54% of wrongful convictions across the nation” (UC Boulder, Korey Wise Innocence Project). Police officers often threaten or bribe witnesses to present skewed or entirely dishonest testimonies, and they may also “fabricate … evidence” (UC Boulder, Korey Wise Innocence Project). As Lamar Johnson’s case shows, such misconduct has horrendous consequences for those who are impacted by it. For the state officials involved in Johnson’s case, misconduct led to a successful conviction. For Johnson, misconduct cost him twenty-eight years of his life. The officers and officials who committed egregious violations of the law throughout the case were not directly affected by these violations. The corrupt officials in the case could return to their comfortable homes after the trial, avoiding uneasy thoughts about their guilt. Johnson, on the other hand, confined within the stark walls of a prison cell, could not. Corrupt conditions foster police misconduct, and it is essential to eliminate those conditions.
Attempts to root out the corruption in the criminal justice system may seem hopeless, but there are a variety of steps reformers can take. Increasing “transparency and accountability” (Innocence Project) will shine a light on corruption, providing consequences for corrupt officials and preventing future corruption. For instance, in 2021, New York “established … an independent entity dedicated to investigating prosecutorial conduct” (New York State Division of the Burdget). If other states follow suit, leaders can eliminate misconduct in trials and decrease the number of wrongful convictions occurring every year. Prosecutors—like those in Johnson’s case that presented false evidence—must be held liable for corrupt and illegal behavior. Though Johnson is no longer contained by a cell, many other wrongfully convicted individuals are. Government leaders must step up to decrease this number and protect the innocent from unprincipled prosecutors.
“Lamar Johnson.” The National Registry of Exonerations, University of Michigan Law,
“Why Do Wrongful Convictions Happen?” Korey Wise Innocence Project, University of
Colorado Boulder, https://www.colorado.edu/outreach/korey-wise-innocence-project
“Official Misconduct.” Innocence Project, https://innocenceproject.org/official-misconduct/.
“Prosecutorial Conduct, Commission On.” New York State Division of the Budget,