Lamar Johnson, and Kevin Strickland before him, are the first two beneficiaries so far of a measure passed by Missouri lawmakers two years ago that gives local prosecutors an avenue to right a gross injustice. Under the new law, a prosecutor can, at any time, file a motion for a judge to reverse or overturn a guilty verdict based on new information or evidence that acquits the person convicted of wrongdoing.
That law has already helped free the two men wrongly convicted of murder, and it was a positive step in ensuring the integrity of the state’s criminal justice system. But Johnson and Strickland, like those sure to be freed after them, are left with an empty purse once released from prison cells they were never meant to be sent to.
Unless DNA evidence acquits an innocent person, Missouri does not compensate prisoners released from custody for a crime they did not commit. Should. Lawmakers must act urgently to advance bipartisan legislation currently in the state Senate that would provide restitution, housing, tuition, medical care and other welfare services for inmates on the wrong side of a wrongful conviction.
Kansas did it. Missouri should too. Wrongfully convicted Kansas prisoners are eligible to receive $65,000 in restitution for each year they were incarcerated. Those exempted in that state are also offered other benefits such as access to health and mental health services, housing and educational assistance.
Johnson left a Missouri jail this week a free man for the first time in nearly three decades. The St. Louis man was convicted of the 1994 murder of Markus Boyd, a crime he did not commit, as he and prosecutors have maintained for years. St. Louis Circuit Prosecutor Kim Gardner’s office reviewed the evidence and determined that Johnson had nothing to do with the murder. St. Louis Circuit Court Judge David C. Mason agreed.
However, Johnson and others wrongfully convicted should not depend on the goodwill of others as they transition from prison into society. Many people in this situation find themselves at a huge disadvantage. They have been kept away from the educational opportunities and formative years in the workforce where free Americans build the foundation for their future careers.
Put yourself in their shoes: Lamar Johnson is 49 years old. He’s starting from scratch. The state has robbed him of the opportunities all young adults deserve at the start of their lives.
Gardner’s motion to overturn Johnson’s conviction was appealed by the Missouri attorney general’s office. Gardner did not have the legal authority to overturn the conviction, the AG’s office argued in court. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed, suggesting that the Missouri legislature take up the matter.
In 2021, the General Assembly passed a law that gave local prosecutors the right to challenge a wrongful conviction in court on two grounds: clear and compelling evidence of innocence or a constitutional error such as an ineffective attorney. We supported that legislation.
Strickland became the first Missouri prisoner freed under the new law. About $1.8 million in donations have come from around the world to help him financially adjust to the transition from prison after spending four decades locked up for a triple homicide he didn’t commit.
Johnson spent nearly 28 years in prison until his conviction was overturned. By Thursday, a GoFundMe campaign for him had reached six figures.
Both have been fortunate that their cases have attracted international attention and support. The same can’t be said of other exonerates like Keith Carnes, a Kansas City man who has returned to society after serving 18 years in prison for a faulty murder shot.
Carnes’ conviction was marred by shoddy investigative work and a secret witness. He has been free for less than a year and will not receive a dime from the state. Help with accommodation? No. Tuition assistance? No. Mental health services? Forget about it.
The transition has been difficult, said Carnes, 52. He is married but unemployed. He has yet to raise even $10,000 through a GoFundMe fundraiser.
“I’m trying to make something out of nothing,” Carnes said.
Convicted paroled prisoners receive more state aid than innocent people. Probation inmates are provided with help with counseling, housing, and employment.
“It’s not fair,” Carnes said. He is right.
Exonerated prisoners like Carnes, Strickland and Johnson must get on with their lives without financial assistance from the very state that fought hard to send and keep them in prison. An unfair and unfair legal system harms us all.
Missouri has one of the toughest reparations laws in the nation, civil rights advocates argue. The state must adopt a policy at least equivalent to that of Kansas.
Missouri can and should do better. No amount of money can correct a wrong past. No amount of dollars can fix a person sent to prison for something he didn’t do. The state should be legally obligated to provide restitution to which it is already ethically obligated.
Lawmakers can no longer bury their heads in the sand. The police, prosecutors and jurors sometimes get it wrong. It is inconceivable that people wrongly convicted of a crime are set free without the means to take care of themselves. Why should the exonerated not be compensated for the state’s error?