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Wrongfully convicted man freed after nearly 3 decades in prison meets his longtime pen pal for the first time

Wrongfully convicted man meets pen pal
Wrongfully convicted man freed after 28 years meets longtime pen pal 02:42

Seeing her there, cuddled up with her crossword, you would never guess 80-year-old retired schoolteacher Ginny Schrappen had a pen pal in a penitentiary — especially not one accused of murder. 

Twenty-five years ago, a deacon at Schrappen's church outside St. Louis handed her a letter from a prisoner who had written the diocese hoping that someone would write back. That prisoner was Lamar Johnson, a man serving a life sentence in a Missouri prison. 

Ginny Schrappen at home. Steve Hartman / On The Road

"He was in prison for murder," Schrappen said. "I've been accused of being naïve before, and that's OK.  I wasn't worried.  He's not going to come and get me."

The two struck up a fast friendship and corresponded constantly over the next 20 years. Schrappen says that she could tell, right from the start, that there was no way Johnson had committed murder. 

Twenty-eight years later, the state of Missouri confirmed her intuition. 

After the Midwest Innocence Project got involved and the real killer confessed, Johnson was exonerated and released from prison at 49 years old. 

APTOPIX Wrongful Conviction Missouri
Lamar Johnson, center and his attorneys react on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023, after St. Louis Circuit Judge David Mason vacated his murder conviction during a hearing in St. Louis, Mo.  Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP, Pool

He spent the next few weeks doing all the things he couldn't do in prison, including traveling to see one of his best friends for the very first time. 

Johnson went to Schrappen's house for the first time, where she greeted him with a warm welcome. She gave him a tour, a box of his favorite cereal and one last letter. 

Ginny Schrappen and Lamar Johnson meet for the first time.  Steve Hartman / On The Road

Johnson said that the greatest gift, though, is the confidence his friend instilled in him. 

"Especially when somebody is innocent, you want someone to believe in you.  Because when you have people who believe in you and they won't give up on you, then it makes it harder for you to give up on yourself," Johnson said, adding that Schrappen's belief is what helped him get through nearly 30 years of injustice.

Now, he said, it inspires him to serve a life of friendship. 

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