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Lamar Johnson: "I am a freed man, an exonerated man and a blessed man"

Lamar Johnson, a St. Louis, Missouri man, had spent almost three decades in prison before he was finally set free in February 2023. "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty takes an in-depth look at the case and for the first time talks to the witness who helped put him away — a witness who says he was pressured by law enforcement to identify Johnson as one of the killers.

Convicted at 21, and still locked up at 49, Lamar Johnson has spent most of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Lamar Johnson
"I did not kill Markus," Lamar Johnson told "48 Hours" Erin Moriarty. " He was one of my best friends. ... And I -- and I loved him." CBS News

Erin Moriarty (July 2021): How do you keep up hope?

Lamar Johnson: I don't have a choice. … I — I know the truth. I know that I didn't kill Markus.

Lamar Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 for shooting 25-year-old Markus Boyd on his front porch.  Johnson was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Erin Moriarty: What have you lost?

Lamar Johnson: Time… and uh … there's a closeness between — especially with a father and his daughters. And I … (emotional) I missed being able to — to be a part of their life.

Erin Moriarty: You want your dad to come home.

Brittany Johnson: Yeah, I definitely do.

Brittany Johnson was just one year old when her dad was sent away.

Brittany Johnson (wiping tears): It was definitely hard, but I learned to live without my dad.

Kiera Barrow was just an infant then.

Kiera Barrow (in tears): We're still waiting.  There is still an innocent man in prison.

Kiera's mother, Erika Barrow.

Erin Moriarty: Did you think you'd marry him?

Erika Barrow: Yes, I did. I mean, he was my first love.

Lamar Johnson grew up in St. Louis – consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country. His South Side neighborhood in 1994 was battered by high crime and homicide rates.  Johnson had steered clear of serious trouble.

Erika Barrow: He wanted to better himself. … He wanted to be the man that he needed to be for his, his children.

So, Johnson, the 20-year-old father of two, worked at Jiffy Lube while attending community college.  But he also had a dangerous side hustle – selling small amounts of crack cocaine for extra cash.

Lamar Johnson: Yes, I was makin' some poor choices then. And – I – I — I take responsibility for that. But that wasn't the sum of who I was.

Erika Barrow: Selling drugs wasn't his life. It was just something to help him manage … until he could do better.

Markus Boyd
Markus Boyd, 25,  was shot to death by two gunmen on his St. Louis porch on Oct. 30, 1994.  Normandy High School

Johnson's good friend, Markus Boyd, five years older, had also started a family, and was holding down a solid job at a printing company.  And he, too, sold drugs on the side.

Erika Barrow: Markus was … like the preppy type. … You know, he wasn't very street. 

Greg Elking: He was a really, really good guy.

Greg Elking, then 30, had worked briefly with Boyd at the printing company.  And, Elking admits, he was an occasional customer.  On the evening of Oct. 30, 1994, he wanted to get high, but Boyd said, "No."  

Greg Elking: And he was like … "We're going to go to work tomorrow."  So, we actually … sat down on the front porch, up on the stairs.

Markus Boyd's street, Louisiana Avenue, was empty. His girlfriend and their baby were upstairs.

Greg Elking: All he talked about all the time, you know, was about his baby and about his girlfriend.

Greg Elking: He's making me laugh, we're kind of laughing at each other. … But all of a sudden, he went serious. … He was like, "Oh, no."

From the narrow pathway next to Boyd's apartment, two men came out of nowhere, barely visible in the dim light.

Greg Elking: These guys, they had … completely dark clothing and they had masks on.

Elking says the men wore black masks that covered their face except for their eyes.  And they had guns.  The men flew up the porch steps, says Elking.  One attacked Markus Boyd.

Greg Elking: And he's wrestling … with Markus.

The second gunman grabbed Elking.

Greg Elking: And he says, "Get the f*** up." … I remember looking at him, right in … the guy's eyes.

Greg Elking: The other guy … I seen him put the gun right up to Markus' like neck area.

Greg Elking: And when he pulled the trigger, I seen the flash…

Greg Elking: Boom.

Greg Elking: The third shot, I kind of seen Markus' soul just go. And I knew, I knew he was dead.

To Elking's horror, both men continued to shoot Boyd, then vanished the same way they had appeared, sprinting down the dark pathway.  Surprisingly, the shooters spared the only eyewitness.

Greg Elking
Greg Elking was the lone eyewitness to Markus Boyd's murder. CBS News

Erin Moriarty: You say you looked into one shooter's eyes.

Greg Elking: All I seen was the eyes.

Erin Moriarty: Could you tell whether he was White or Black?

Greg Elking: Um, I knew he was Black.

When the gunmen were gone, Greg Elking took off in the opposite direction. As he ran away, Elking says he could hear Markus Boyd's girlfriend screaming.

Erin Moriarty: It's still hard to talk about it, isn't it?

Greg Elking: (Emotional, doesn't respond.) 

Erin Moriarty (July 2021): And where were you when this happened?

Lamar Johnson: I was about three miles away.

Erika Barrow and Lamar Johnson
Lamar Johnson says he was with his girlfriend, Erika Barrow, and their 5-month-old daughter, Kiera, visiting friends at the time of the shooting. Kiera Barrow

Johnson says he was with his girlfriend, Erika Barrow, and their 5-month-old daughter, Kiera, visiting friends.  Erika says that entire evening, Lamar Johnson was out of her sight just once.

Erika Barrow: So, we were there because he was making a transaction.  Someone was coming. … And so, he was just, like, I'll be right back.

Johnson left the house, Erika says, just as she began changing Kiera's diaper.

Lamar Johnson (2019): And um, I went out to meet somebody that I was dealing with.

His customer picked him up at the corner of 39th and Lafayette, Johnson says. They completed a quick transaction while driving around the block.

Erika Barrow: By the time I've finished changing her diaper and cleaned everything up … he's coming back up the steps.

Erin Moriarty: And how long does that take?

Erika Barrow: Three to five minutes. … And he's talking, you know, nothing out of the ordinary. … It, he was just normal.

Minutes later, Johnson got a call that Markus Boyd had been shot. The next day, he learned that Boyd had died. Johnson's own life began to unravel. According to investigators, when they asked Boyd's girlfriend who she suspected, only one name came to mind: Lamar Johnson.  She thought the longtime friends might have had a falling out.

Lamar Johnson (Oct. 24, 2022): Markus and I have never had an argument or a fight.

Lamar Johnson: I loved him. I had no reason to want to hurt him.

Erin Moriarty: You agreed to talk to the cops without a lawyer. That was risky, wasn't it?

Lamar Johnson: Well, now, I didn't have anything to hide.

THE EYEWITNESS

Four days after Markus Boyd was shot to death on his front porch, St. Louis police tracked down the only eyewitness to the murder, Greg Elking.

Erin Moriarty: How would you describe what you went through that night?

Greg Elking: It was the most horrifying thing I ever seen in my life.

Markus Boyd crime scene
" It was the most horrifying thing I ever seen in my life," Greg Elking said of witnessing his friend's murder. Evidence photo

Shaken and scared, Elking says he was initially reluctant to talk until he met lead investigator Joe Nickerson.

Greg Elking: I thought he was this amazing dude. … I thought he was like Nick Nolte from "48 Hours" — out of a movie — he was awesome. … I mean, it was, it was somebody that I just immediately admired.

Elking says even though the shooters were wearing masks, he could tell they were dark skinned black men, but he only saw the eyes of one of them. Still, Nickerson, he says, insisted on showing him several photos.  One, says Elking, stood out.

Photo array shown to Greg Elking
Even though Greg Elking said he didn't get a good look at the suspects, he says Det. Nickerson insisted on showing him an array of several photos. Elking said one of them stood out because of the eyes. The photo was of Lamar Johnson.  St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department

Greg Elking: I said, "these eyes … there's something about these eyes." And that's all I said.

It was a photo of Lamar Johnson.

Greg Elking: And immediately he said, "Would you sign the back of it?" And I said, "No, I don't want to sign the back of it."

Erin Moriarty: Why not?

Greg Elking: Because I didn't want nothing to do with this, because I couldn't pick out no murderer. And I don't even think he's the murderer, I didn't say he was a murderer.

Nickerson, Elking says, warned him his life could be at risk, telling him that Lamar Johnson was a dangerous man who may have been involved in as many as six murders. Attorney Lindsay Runnels says none of that was true.

Lindsay Runnels | Lamar Johnson's attorney: If they had any evidence, whatsoever, then or now, Lamar Johnson would be charged with a crime.

Runnels began working on Johnson's case when she was in law school.

Erin Moriarty: Does he have a record at all for violence?

Lindsay Runnels: No, his record is … and was minor. It's a possession charge, possession of cocaine, and then a tampering with a license plate.

She says Johnson received probation for those offenses. Still, she says, cops, aware of his criminal record, kept him and young men like him on their radar.

Lindsay Runnels: It's just the usual suspects type of round them up and everybody is guilty by association.

But after the murder on Louisiana Avenue, police had a new reason to focus on Lamar Johnson. The victim's girlfriend had given them his name and now, they had what they said was a photo identification.

On the evening of Nov. 3, 1994, four days after the murder, they arrested Johnson along with his friend Phillip Campbell.

Erika Barrow: I couldn't even understand why. Why would they arrest you?

Johnson's girlfriend at the time and his alibi for the night of the murder: Erika Barrow.

Erika Barrow: I begged him to get a lawyer … and all he kept saying is, "I don't want my mom and stepfather paying all the money, all this money for a lawyer. I didn't do it."

Lamar Johnson (Oct. 24, 2022): I didn't have anything to hide. So uh, you know, I believed in the system. I believed that if I explained to them what I knew and, and where I was that that would sort itself out.

At the police station, Johnson agreed to a live lineup.

Lamar Johnson (Oct. 24, 2022): I wanted to try to be as cooperative as I could. I wanted them to — to, to investigate and talk to … the people whose house I was at that night. … You know I would expect that they would reach the conclusion that I didn't have anything to do with it.

Lamar Johnson photo lineup
At the police station, Lamar Johnson agreed to do a photo lineup. He is in the third position, wearing the white pants. Det. Nickerson brought Greg Elking in to try and make an identification. Elking viewed the lineup twice and didn't make an identification.  St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department

But investigators never spoke to anyone who had been with Johnson on the night of the shooting, not even Erika Barrow.  They put him in that lineup — he's the third man in the photo above — and brought in Elking to view it.

Erin Moriarty: Could you identify anybody?

Greg Elking: No.

Altogether Elking viewed that lineup three times and never picked Johnson.

Philip Campbell photo lineup
Greg Elking was then asked to view a different lineup. Lamar Johnson was not in this one but the other suspect, Phillip Campbell, is in the fourth position. Elking was unable to make an identification.  St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department

Elking was then asked to view a different live lineup. Lamar Johnson wasn't there, but the man arrested with him, Philip Campbell, is number 4 in the photo above. Elking still couldn't identify anyone and says he feared he'd let down the detective he admired and trusted.

Greg Elking: I felt so bad. I could see it in his eyes like I — I hurt this guy, like this whole time, you know, I just wasted his time.

Then, according to Elking, he asked Detective Joe Nickerson how he could help.

Greg Elking: All that came out of my mouth was like, all right, Joe, it — you tell me what the numbers were, and I'll tell you if they were correct.

Erin Moriarty: What does he say to you?

Greg Elking: He says three and four. And I was like, you're right, three and four.

Lamar Johnson was number three in that first lineup.  Philip Campbell was the fourth man in the other lineup.

Greg Elking: If Joe Nickerson is telling me that three and four is it, it's got to be Lamar and whoever, Phillip. … because he wouldn't lie to me. Joe wouldn't lie to me.

Erin Moriarty: So, you pick three and four because Nickerson told you?

Greg Elking: Yeah.

"48 Hours" asked Joe Nickerson for an interview. He declined our request but sent us a text saying in part, "I went where the facts, evidence and circumstances took me."

Elking claims he told no one that Nickerson had allegedly given him the suspects' numbers in the lineups. Instead, he told the other detectives that he was able to identify Lamar Johnson because of his distinctive eye.

Greg Elking: They had asked me, what do you mean about the eye when you say that you could pick, you know, these eyes?

Greg Elking: And I — and I said, I don't know, like — like a lazy eye or something, like it's different from the other.

Dwight Warren, the prosecutor, says he pressed Elking on his identification of Johnson.

Dwight Warren: I believed Mr. Elking, because I looked him straight in the eye and said, you know … I want to know if he did it … Tell me you're sure of your identification. … Please tell me the truth because I don't want to go and charge somebody who's not guilty.

Erin Moriarty: What did Greg Elking say to you when you said that to him?

Dwight Warren: Well quote end quote I couldn't tell you, but he told me he was telling the truth that he, he knew who did the shooting … and it was Lamar Johnson and Philip Campbell, so I charged them both.

In July 1995, Lamar Johnson went on trial with Elking as the star witness. 

Dwight Warren: If he had backed off of that, I would have never issued the case. … That, he was absolutely essential.

To bolster the case, one of the witnesses the prosecution called was William Mock, a jail house informant with a lengthy criminal history, who claimed that he overheard Johnson and Campbell in a holding cell talking about the murder. But attorney Lindsay Runnels says Mock wasn't credible and that his cell wasn't close enough to hear anything.

Lindsay Runnels: Lamar wasn't ever celled with Campbell, and Campbell nor Lamar were ever in the same cell as William Mock, so how could you hear this, if it happened at all, which it didn't.

Erin Moriarty: Don't you want to make sure that jailhouse snitch is telling the truth?

Dwight Warren: How am I going to do that?

Erin Moriarty: Well, you wouldn't put somebody on the stand unless you could check out their story, right?

Dwight Warren: Unless I — I did check it out. He was in two jail cells away. He was in a position that, to be able to hear that.

Johnson didn't take the stand at his trial. The defense relied on his girlfriend Erika Barrow who told the jury he was with her at the time of the murder. It took less than two hours for the jurors to reach a verdict. Guilty. 

Johnson's life had been changed forever by Greg Elking, who says that as he was pointing at Johnson at trial, he knew he had identified the wrong man.

Greg Elking: This isn't the dude I seen at all. … Because to me, Lamar is not dark and not what I seen.

Erin Moriarty: You had doubts right afterwards. Why didn't you tell somebody? Why didn't you say I think —

Greg Elking: Because nobody talks to me, nobody. … who am I going to tell? I don't know who I could have told.

Erin Moriarty: Did it occur to you at that moment that you might have put an innocent man —

Greg Elking: Yes.

Erin Moriarty: — behind bars?

Greg Elking: Without a doubt … Because I lied on the testimony. I lied because I thought I was doing the right thing.

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE CASE

Lamar Johnson was just 21 years old when he was convicted of murder. 

Lamar Johnson (July 2021): At my trial they did not even present a motive. They never explained why I supposedly did this. 

Phillip Campbell letter to Johnson
Between Lamar Johnson's trial and sentencing, he exchanged letters with the other suspect, Phillip Campbell. It was in those letters that Campbell admitted that Johnson was not involved. In another letter, he even named the other shooter – James "B.A." Howard. Johnson tried to get a hearing about this new piece of evidence, but his request was denied. Evidence photo

And then, before his sentencing, Johnson received surprising new information that he believed would prove his innocence: handwritten letters from his friend, the other suspected killer, Phillip Campbell. One said "… you didn't do a thing ..." 

Lamar Johnson: He said, "I'm sorry you got convicted for somethin' you didn't do" … He said he wanted to come forth, but his attorney wouldn't let him because he thought he could beat his case. 

Erin Moriarty: And Phillip Campbell was actually one of the shooters. 

Lamar Johnson: He was. 

Campbell even named the other shooter who was with him on the night of the murder… a man named James B.A. Howard.

Johnson now had the names of both shooters. He wrote the judge and asked for a hearing, but his request was denied. In September 1995, Lamar Johnson was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Girlfriend Erika Barrow blames law enforcement. 

Erika Barrow: You didn't care to check his alibi.  You wanted to blame someone, and you did exactly that. … You just flat out didn't care. You didn't care.  

Lamar Johnson didn't give up.  He became his own jailhouse lawyer, sifting through police reports, trial transcripts and gathering new evidence. Johnson, with legal help, filed a petition asking for a new trial in 1996. Again, he was denied. Then, two years later, he would meet another inmate with a similar story.  

Ricky Kidd: We were both assigned to Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri … Our friendship was almost instant.

Ricky Kidd, who was also serving a life sentence for murder, remembers when he first learned about Johnson's case. 

Ricky Kidd: He said … "I have to go to the … law library." I said, "What are you working on?" And he turned to me. He said, "Well, I know everybody says this, but I'm innocent." … and a big old smile appeared across my face, kind of like you're seeing right now. And I said, "Well, I know everybody say this, but I'm innocent, too."

Ricky Kidd and Lamar Johnson
Ricky Kidd and Lamar Johnson Ricky Kidd

The two men made a pact in prison.

Ricky Kidd: He said, let's make a promise that whoever makes it out will come back for the other. And we shook on it. 

The Midwest Innocence Project had already been working on Kidd's case before he himself was exonerated. Kidd says he convinced lawyers there to take a closer look at Johnson's case. 

When that team of lawyers began their research, they discovered that the star witness, Greg Elking, in prison himself for bank robbery, had written a letter to a clergyman admitting he had lied at Johnson's trial. 

Erin Moriarty: What did you think would happen? 

Lamar Johnson: Again, I thought that I would be heard … So, it made me even more hopeful … that I would, that the court would at least listen. 

Greg Elking ledger
In the letter to the clergyman, Elking also revealed that law enforcement said they could help him financially and relocate his family. Detective Nickerson and the prosecutor's office had put him in the witness protection program. Elking's debts were paid, and his outstanding traffic warrants were cleared.  Evidence photo

Elking's letter would reveal another reason why he agreed to testify against Johnson. At the time of the murder, Elking had been in serious financial straits. Detective Nickerson and the prosecutor's office put him in a witness protection program. Elkings' debts were paid, and his outstanding traffic warrants cleared — and that's not all.

Erin Moriarty: Whose idea was to give you money? To move you? To give you cash?

Greg Elking: Oh, that was Joe Nickerson … They paid my first month and last month's rent for — for a house. 

Altogether, Elking had received more than $4,000. None of that was disclosed to Johnson and his lawyer at trial.  Johnson repeatedly asked for a hearing, he was denied, and his case stalled.  

Lamar Johnson: I mean, what else is needed? The only thing that, that I haven't been able to present is DNA, and God, I wish there was some DNA (gets emotional) 

Then, in 2018, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner agreed to look at his case. She had created a Conviction Integrity Unit to look at cases of possible wrongful conviction.

Kimberly Gardner: And I started seeing some red flags. And I consulted my team, and I said, I think we have a problem here. 

One of the many flags for Gardner was the timeline for the murder. Could Johnson have had time to kill his friend Markus Boyd? Erika Barrow said Johnson had only left their friend's apartment for around five minutes.  

Lamar Johnson: And you cannot drive that distance. You'd have to be speeding through St. Louis to even get there … and then you'd have to speed all the way back. There's no way you could do that.  

But Prosecutor Dwight Warren says Erika could have lost track of time — that Johnson could have been gone as long as 15 minutes.   

Dwight Warren: She didn't have a stopwatch. … Lamar got into a car … and took off.

At Johnson's trial, Detective Joe Nickerson testified that it only took him 5 minutes to go from the alibi location to the crime scene. We asked Chief Investigator Robert Ogilvie from the Circuit Attorney's Office to take us on that same drive.  We timed the drive using a cellphone.  

"48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty
Detective Nickerson testified at Johnson's trial that Lamar Johnson could've driven from his alibi's house to Markus Boyd's apartment in five minutes, even though it was about three miles away.  "48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty tested out the drive from with an investigator from the St. Louis Circuit Attorney's Office. It took about 13 minutes just one way.  CBS News

Investigator Ogilvie: Here we are.

Erin Moriarty: Yep. 12:55. Thirteen minutes. 

Thirteen minutes one way — that's more than double the time detective Nickerson said it took.  In 2019, Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner's team released a detailed report listing numerous errors that undermined Johnson's conviction.  

Erin Moriarty: As a prosecutor, you put people in prison, you don't try to get them out. 

Kimberly Gardner: As a prosecutor, no prosecutor, I believe, wants to secure a conviction wrongfully using wrong tactics …That's just not what we want to do. We want to get it right.

Jurors never learned that jailhouse informant William Mock was a racist who had a hatred for black people, nor did they hear the majority of his criminal record. And they were never told Greg Elking had been paid thousands of dollars. Gardner was convinced Johnson was innocent, but when she tried to get his conviction overturned, court after court, including the Missouri Supreme Court, said she didn't have the power.

Kimberly Gardner: And when you try to abide by your oath and you're stopped every way, it weighs on you.

In 2021, the Missouri Legislature passed a law that gave Gardner and other prosecutors the power to bring cases of innocence to court. A year later, Johnson got the news he had been praying for. After nearly three decades in prison, he would finally get a hearing to present new evidence in his case. 

LAST CHANCE AT FREEDOM

On Dec. 12, 2022, Lamar Johnson and his legal team gathered in a St. Louis courtroom for a week-long hearing. His daughters Brittany and Kiera were in the courtroom nearly every day.

Kiera Barrow: I think we're all trying to be … hopeful … that my dad gets justice.

One man, Judge David Mason, will decide Johnson's future.  He has three options: Overturn the conviction and grant a new trial, overturn the conviction and declare Johnson innocent, or he could uphold the jury's verdict.

Erin Moriarty: What is at stake here with this judge's decision?

Kimberly Gardner: Justice and the integrity of the whole criminal justice system.

Lamar Johnson wrongful conviction hearing, day 3
"It's devastating for me that this man has spent 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit,"  Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner, pictured right, told "48 Hours." POOL/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner sat by Johnson, instead of her usual seat at the prosecution table.  Gardner appointed two lawyers to handle Johnson's case, Charlie Weiss and Jonathan Potts.

Jonathan Potts: I took this case because I believe that Lamar Johnson's innocent. I didn't take it because I think he might be innocent.

Charlie Weiss: There was no physical evidence at all connecting Lamar Johnson with the murder of Marcus Boyd, period.

CHARLIE WEISS (in court): Thank you, Your Honor, may it please the court. This is a rather historic moment in this court.  This is the first time … where the court is hearing an actual innocence claim filed by a prosecuting attorney.

The Missouri Attorney General's office sent a team of their own to argue that Johnson's conviction should stand. In response to "48 Hours"' request for an interview, they provided us with this written statement, that read in part, "the Attorney General's Office has fought to keep a convicted murderer in prison."

Attorney Miranda Loesch told the judge not to trust the witnesses who were about to vouch for Johnson's innocence.

MIRANDA LOESCH (in court): They're going to ask you to believe convicted murderers and gang members. … Their evidence is … not credible.

Johnson's team calls their first witness.  James Howard takes the stand and admits that he's one of the men who murdered Markus Boyd.

James Howard at Lamar Johnson wrongful conviction hearing
While on the stand, James Howard, who is serving a life sentence for a different murder, admitted he was one of the men who shot Markus Boyd. POOL/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JONATHAN POTTS (in court): How did Markus die?

JAMES HOWARD:  Me and Phillip Campbell killed him at — on his front porch.

Remember, Phillip Campbell had written Lamar Johnson saying he and Howard were the real shooters. Campbell, who was later convicted of the murder, took a deal and served only five years. He has since died.  Howard was never charged with Boyd's death. He's currently in prison for life for unrelated crimes, including murdering another man.

JAMES HOWARD (in court): I killed him the exact same way. I fired two shots in the back his head.

But attorneys Jonathan Potts and Charlie Weiss can't rely on Howard's word alone. They must now tear apart the original case against Lamar Johnson.  They call Greg Elking, the state's former star witness.

GREG ELKING (in court): Law enforcement was wanting me to help, and I trusted them. … I wanted to help.

Elking told the court that he felt pressured by Detective Joe Nickerson to identify Johnson in the lineup.

Greg Elking at Lamar Johnson wrongful conviction hearing
Greg Elking testified that he felt pressured by Det. Nickerson to identify Lamar Johnson in the lineup. "And I've been living with it, 25, 28 years and I'm telling you … I just wish I could change time," Elking said on the stand. POOL/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

GREG ELKING: He goes, I know you know who it is and you're just not saying.

GREG ELKING: And this is the part I hate the most. … I just remember saying to him, "you tell me the numbers and I'll tell you if you're right." And he did. … And I was like, that was it, that was the numbers.

GREG ELKINS: And I've been living with it … 25, 28 years and I'm telling you,  I just wish, I just wish I could change time.

On day three, Judge Mason questioned the original prosecutor in the case, Dwight Warren, about the reliability of Greg Elking's identification of Lamar Johnson.

JUDGE DAVID MASON: He told you and the officers— that it was based upon him looking at the eyes, because that was all he could see. Isn't that correct?

DWIGHT WARREN: I believe so.

JUDGE DAVID MASON: And did he or did he not tell you that all of this happened … within seconds?

DWIGHT WARREN: Yes. Yes.

JUDGE DAVID MASON: And that's what you decided was sufficiently reliable to seek a murder conviction?

DWIGHT WARREN: To take it to a jury. Yes, sir.

Warren admitted to Johnson's lawyers that without an eyewitness, he would never have filed charges in the first place.

DWIGHT WARREN: Oh, absolutely not. … I didn't have any evidence.

Lamar Johnson wrongful conviction hearing, day 4
On day four of the hearing, Lamar Johnson finally got to defend himself and assert his innocence in front of the judge. POOL/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On day four, Lamar Johnson finally got the chance to defend himself in his own words. 

MIRANDA LOESCH: So, you talked to Detective Nickerson that night, correct?

LAMAR JOHNSON: Yes ma'am.

Attorney Miranda Loesch asked him about his conversation with Detective Nickerson a few days after the murder. 

LAMAR JOHNSON: I said, man, "that boy is my friend. I didn't shoot him." … I said, "OK. I — I will voluntarily participate in the lineup."

MIRANDA LOESCH: You had every little thing to lose at that point, didn't you?

LAMAR JOHNSON: I didn't think so.

MIRANDA LOESCH: You didn't think so? You were arrested for a homicide.

LAMAR JOHNSON: I didn't commit the homicide. So why would I be concerned that I had everything to lose?

As the hearing week neared the end, Detective Nickerson takes the stand — the man Elking claims pressured him into falsely identifying Johnson.

Det. Joe Nickerson at Lamar Johnson wrongful conviction hearing
On the stand, Det. Joe Nickerson denied pressuring Greg Elking to identify Lamar Johnson in the lineup. POOL/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

DET. JOSEPH NICKERSON: Mr. Elking goes  "Hey, … I know who it is, it's number three in the first lineup and it's number four in the second lineup."

MIRANDA LOESCH: And did you tell him to say that?

DET. JOSEPH NICKERSON: I didn't tell him to say anything.

But Judge Mason had some questions of his own for Nickerson.

JUDGE DAVID MASON: Are you aware that all the evidence … suggests that your witness could only recognize some aspect of the eyes?

DET. JOSEPH NICKERSON: I'm aware of that.

JUDGE DAVID MASON: Please stand up, Mr. Johnson.

JUDGE DAVID MASON: I am just curious. … because I don't know, what in the world is distinctive about this man's eyes?

JOSEPH NICKERSON: Well, you can tell his eyes are different —

JUDGE DAVID MASON:  I could — tell me, what do you see?

DET. JOSEPH NICKERSON: I can tell that his right eye is different from his left. … One is lower or higher than the other.

JUDGE DAVID MASON: OK.

Judge David Mason at Lamar Johnson wrongful conviction hearing
Judge David Mason listened intently each day of the hearing. He even took over the questioning from the lawyers at points, making it clear when he believed something and when he didn't.  POOL/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Erin Moriarty: How would you describe the involvement of Judge Mason in this case? 

Tony Messenger: Well, that was one of the most unique things I've seen in any trial I've ever covered.

Columnist Tony Messenger covered the case for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Tony Messenger: He didn't just ask questions; he took over the questioning at times … and made it very clear … when he was believing something and when he wasn't.

After five days of witnesses, court adjourned.  With his freedom on the line, Johnson was taken to a St. Louis jail to wait for Judge Mason's decision. 

Lamar Johnson: I don't know how to not fight for my innocence … to fight for what's right — what was wrongfully taken from me.

THE JUDGE DECIDES

Lamar Johnson's daughter Kiera Barrow has finally heard what happened to her father so many years ago.

Kiera Barrow: It's been really hard … we heard everything in court. … the misconduct and the negligence … that occurred.

Brittany Johnson: The hardest thing, was just … that Greg lied … knowing his testimony did put him in jail.

Lamar Johnson and daughters
Lamar Johnson with daughters Brittany Johnson, left, and Kiera Barrow.  "I don't think people know how blessed they are to be able to just hug somebody that they love ... or to wake up in a house with people that love you," he told "48 Hours." "I haven't had a chance to do that in 28 years." Brittany Johnson/Kiera Barrow

Brittany Johnson believes that Greg Elking's lies robbed her of time with her dad.

Brittany Johnson: I'm very angry.

Erin Moriarty: This is hard.

Brittany Johnson: Yes, is very hard. I hate that I'm crying right now … a dad is — is the most important role.

But their wait isn't over. Two months pass with no decision from the judge. Keira is hoping it happens soon.

Kiera Barrow: We've been robbed of so many opportunities and milestones, I'm getting married in April of this year. (Crying) It would just mean so much to me and I know to my father to have him there with me and for him to be able to give me away.

Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon in February, Johnson's family and friends return to the courtroom. 

Lawyers with the Missouri Attorney General's office, fighting Johnson's release, are at one table.  At the other, the team trying to win Johnson's freedom. Seated next to Johnson, his attorney Lindsay Runnels.

Erin Moriarty: What should Judge Mason do in this case?

Lindsay Runnels: Judge Mason should vacate these convictions and Lamar Johnson should walk out of that courtroom today.

After both legal teams were given copies of his final opinion, Judge David Mason announced his decision on Feb. 14, 2023.

JUDGE DAVID MASON: After reviewing both the underlying trial as well as the entirety of the hearing, for the reasons stated above, it is hereby ordered that the motion of the Circuit Attorney of the 22nd Judicial Circuit filed herein for the benefit of Lamar Johnson is granted.

JUDGE DAVID MASON: The conviction of Lamar Johnson in State v. Lamar Johnson, Cause 2294-3706A is hereby set aside and held for naught.

Johnson's murder conviction was overturned. The judge also found that there was clear and convincing evidence of Johnson's innocence. After more than 28 years behind bars, he was more than a free man — 49-year-old Lamar Johnson had finally been exonerated. 

This time he would leave the courthouse not in a prison van, but in a black sedan.

Erin Moriarty: When I first met you, I asked you to identify yourself.

Lamar Johnson (2021): My name's Lamar Johnson. I've been in prison for 26 years now. 

Erin Moriarty: And If I asked you to identify Lamar Johnson right now, what would you say?

Lamar Johnson
"I am a freed man, an exonerated man and a blessed man," Lamar Johnson told Erin Moriarty after his release from prison. CBS News

Lamar Johnson (2023): I am a freed man, an exonerated man and a blessed man.

Erin Moriarty: How important was it to have Greg Elking take the stand and — and tell the judge what he had done at trial?

Lamar Johnson: That was very important. … He intentionally, you know, falsely identified me. But … not only did he acknowledge that he made a mistake, he took steps to try to correct it. And I am extremely grateful to him for that.

And during that time he spent in prison, he says he never forgot about his friend Markus Boyd who died that night.

Lamar Johnson: I didn't want Markus's family thinking that I did this to him, 'cause I genuinely cared about Markus. … Markus was a good guy.

In the meantime, Johnson is starting over. His friend Ricky Kidd knows it won't be easy.

Ricky Kidd: It's going to be tough. …but … Lamar has the ability to adapt and adjust and … see new opportunities.

Lamar Johnson: Worked 30 years for the Department of Corrections for pennies. I don't have anything. ... … I hope somebody is willing to … give me a shot. … I want to work.

Erin Moriarty: You have a date coming up, an important date.

Lamar Johnson: My youngest daughter is getting married. And, you know, it'd be nice if I could do something special and nice for them … but presence matters more than presents. And I'm going to make the best of what life I have.

Under current law, Johnson is not entitled to compensation from the state of Missouri.


Produced by Marcelena Spencer and Emily Wichick. Mead Stone is the producer-editor. Stephen A. McCain is the development producer. Chelsea Narvaez is the associate producer. Atticus Brady and Joan Adelman are the editors. Lourdes Aguiar is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer

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