To read the story is to invite the usual outrage at prosecutorial misconduct resulting in the wrongful conviction of an innocent defendant, the worst our legal system can produce.
A St. Louis judge dismissed a motion for a new trial Friday in the case of a prisoner the top prosecutor there says is innocent.
In denying the motion, 22nd Circuit Judge Elizabeth Hogan said in her ruling that the request to vacate Lamar Johnson’s 1995 murder conviction was 24 years too late. Missouri laws do not allow her to review such claims, she found.
The motion wasn’t brought by the defendant, but by the prosecution under the new progressive prosecutor, Kimberly Gardner.
The city of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner plans to appeal the ruling, press representative Susan Ryan said. One of Johnson’s attorneys, Lindsay Runnels, said they are reviewing the judge’s decision: “Not a single word addresses the clear, convincing, and overwhelming evidence that Mr. Johnson is innocent.”
The judge viewed Gardner’s motion as an attack on her predecessor, alleging misconduct by the prosecutor who handled the case. Judge Hogan, sua sponte, appointed the Missouri Attorney General to represent the state in the case, apparently as a check on Gardner’s potential misuse of her office. This was a bizarre framing of Gardner’s position, given that she was elected to office and, as such, is authorized to make the decision as Circuit Attorney.
As much as she could decide to fight against Lamar Johnson’s dismissal, she has the authority to accede to the accuracy of its position. In other words, rather than view this as an attack on her predecessors, it is a concession of the defense’s position that Lamar Johnson is innocent. No one would question her fighting it, and so there is no greater a reason to question her agreeing with it. Except, of course, that’s not what prosecutors traditionally do, even if it should be. If the facts show innocence, then that’s what they show.
But the more controversial problem arises from Judge Hogan’s denial of the motion. What difference did it make that the conviction was 24 years old? If it was wrongful, then it was wrongful, and the fact that it’s been wrongful for 24 years rather than discovered, and conceded, swiftly make it even worse.
The problem was that the law provided for no authority for the motion to dismiss or for a judge to grant such a motion. Not that it appeared that Judge Hogan was particularly inclined to do so anyway, but even if she wanted to grant the motion, there was no enabling law to allow her to do so.
What’s a judge to do?
On the one hand, there’s the “dirty little secret” that when everyone is in agreement about an outcome, particularly an outcome that everyone concedes constitutes a manifest injustice, the little detail of lack of authority can be “overlooked” and a judge can order dismissal. After all, who’s going to appeal? Who’s going to challenge the judge for doing what everyone agrees is the right thing to do? So what if there’s no law enabling the judge to do it if both sides agree?
Bear in mind, we have an adversary system, so if the prosecution and defense are in agreement, then hasn’t the adversary waived any complaint about the court’s stretching its authority beyond what the law would otherwise permit? But then, this requires the judge to agree to exercise her non-existence authority, to deem the concession by the adverse party sufficient to grant the relief even if there is no statutory basis to do so.
Here, Judge Hogan not only had sufficient doubt as to the propriety of Gardner’s concession, as reflected in her appointment of the AG even though no one asked, but chose not to stretch her authority to the point of granted relief beyond the period of time the law allowed.
Which prevails, the means (which dictated that the court deny the motion for lack of authority to grant it) or the ends, the continued imprisonment of a man the prosecution conceded was wrongfully convicted?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.