ST. LOUIS – An overturned conviction recently freed Lamar Johnson after he spent 28 years behind bars for a 1994 murder that a judge ruled he did not commit.
With a wrongful conviction overturned, Johnson has the opportunity to rebuild his life outside of prison. A Missouri statute might make that a bit challenging for him early on, at least financially.
Missouri statutes only allow “restitution,” or compensation for exonerees, if their conviction was vacated through a specific process involving DNA testing.
For Lamar Johnson, that was not the case. A lead detective noted last December during testimony that there was no physical proof that Johnson was involved in the murder, though the case proceeded with non-DNA evidence.
As a result, the Midwest Innocence Project launched a fundraiser with the intent to support Johnson. Two days since Johnson’s conviction was overturned, the effort has already raised $140,000.
“That money will be used to rebuild his life,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, Executive Director of the Midwest Innocence Project, in a statement to FOX 2. “Exonerees come out with nothing – no clothes, no toothbrush, no furniture. This money will allow him to get a start, place to live, clothes to wear, furniture, a car, and will give him a cushion as he looks for employment.”
Johnson will receive all proceeds in the case. Bushnell says he will receive the money once he has a bank account organized. The Midwest Innocence Project will provide him with a check for any funds that were already distributed, and then shift it to his bank account.
“Because he was incarcerated, he has no employment history, no credit history, no rental history– making securing employment and housing very difficult,” said Bushnell. “This will support him through all of that.”
Bushnell says there is no specific goal in mind to support Johnson, though organizers are grateful for any contributions. The GoFundMe will be Johnson’s main source of income for the foreseeable future without compensation from the state.
As for the statute, legal experts haven’t ruled out the possibility of future challenges.
“There is the possibility of a civil lawsuit for Mr. Johnson,” said Bushnell. “However, the standard for those is very high and most folks do not have claims. Mr. Johnson will be evaluating whether or not he will want to pursue that avenue at a later time. Right now, he’s focused on starting his life.”
Nevertheless, Johnson’s case prompted a new state law in 2021 that makes it easier for prosecutors to hold new hearings in cases where there is fresh evidence of a wrongful conviction.
The law helped with overturning the conviction of Kevin Strickland later that year, who spent nearly four decades in prison over a triple-murder case. Strickland, like Johnson, did not receive compensation from the state, but received tens of thousands in donations after his vacated conviction.
At least one Missouri lawmaker has proposed legislation this session in an effort to change the statue that only requires compensation for exonerees in cases that hinged on DNA testing. A bill from State Rep. LaKeySha Bosley (D-District 79) calls for a “state legal expense fund” for wrongful conviction cases. The bill has been read twice among lawmakers, but has not yet advanced to a committee.