Since his incarceration, two men have confessed, and an investigation found that officials secretly paid witness. But prosecutors are being barred from overturning conviction.

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Lamar Johnson, 45, has spent more than half of his life behind bars. And now, even though there is overwhelming evidence of his innocence, he remains incarcerated.

Last month, the Missouri Court of Appeals heard arguments on Johnson’s motion for a new trial, one that prosecutor, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, championed. The court dismissed Johnson’s motion, but it recognized the importance of the issues presented in this case and agreed to transfer it to the Missouri Supreme Court

In July, the Conviction Integrity Unit in Gardner's office found that Johnson's conviction was obtained through the false testimony of an eyewitness who later recanted and was secretly paid by the state. Elected prosecutors from around the country are closely following Johnson’s case because its outcome affects us all.

As prosecutors, our discretion to address past miscarriages is at stake. More important, keeping an innocent man in prison does nothing to protect the public. It also, as so aptly stated in the CIU report, "corrodes public confidence in the justice system."

Counting convictions doesn't bring justice

A prosecutor's job is not about a win-loss record or counting convictions. It's about seeking justice and promoting safe and healthy communities. We run for office because we are committed to justice for victims of crime and to changing a system that has failed individuals, families and communities — especially poor, black and brown communities — for far too long. While in office, we learn that there is no more tragic example of this failure than a person imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. 

Prosecutors must be able to look back and seek to remedy cases where injustices occurred. Overturning wrongful convictions is an essential duty.

It’s clear that the system failed Johnson.

In 1994, he was convicted of a murder that prosecutors now agree he had nothing to do with. The two men responsible for the crime have since confessed. The system robbed Johnson of approximately 25 years of his life. His two daughters were forced to grow up without him.

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Tragedies like Johnson’s are sadly all too common in our legal system, the inevitable casualties of a failed tough-on-crime playbook that for too long prioritized winning at all costs over seeking justice.

Gardner has taken a different approach and filed a motion for a new trial. She has faced resistance from the lower court and Missouri's attorney general, who pushed the judge to bar Johnson from having his case decided on its merits, in spite of the newly discovered evidence of his innocence. 

It is hard to imagine what interest the court or the attorney general has in preventing this case from being decided on the merits. But what is clear is that when a prosecutor’s discretion to seek a new trial for an innocent man is threatened — as Gardner’s has been — it compounds the failure that caused Johnson’s conviction in the first place.

Limiting prosecutorial discretion will continue to make it more difficult for other wrongfully convicted men and women to present evidence of innocence. And it makes it harder for prosecutors to fulfill the ethical responsibility to address past harms, to restore integrity in our system and rebuild fractured bonds of trust with our communities.

In more ways than one, a history of struggle 

Gardner isn't alone. Just as the system disproportionately prosecutes men of color, it has a history of dismissing efforts of black female prosecutors, like Gardner, who try to right past wrongs.  

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When I (Mosby), as Baltimore state’s attorney, lobbied to introduce legislation that would eliminate hundreds of wrongful convictions caused by the actions of corrupt police officers, the Maryland State's Attorneys' Association vehemently came out against me, going so far as testifying against the legislation.

After my co-author Kimberly Foxx, state's attorney for Cook County, Illinois, made a motion to overturn dozens of convictions tainted by coerced police interrogations, the local police union lambasted her as someone harboring "anti-police" sentiment.

District Attorney Rachael Rollins of Suffolk County, Massachusetts, pledged to focus on prosecuting violent crimes and diverting nonviolent matters to treatment and restoration programs. For that, the president of the National Police Association said Rollins had “incited ... illegal conduct,” and the group filed a complaint with the bar association.  

Black and brown communities want and deserve long overdue changes to the justice system. A few moments of resistance cannot be a deterrent for that change. 

Prosecutors' obligation to correct injustices in our system is not at odds with our commitment to victims. But the resistance we face when fulfilling this duty is at odds with public safety.

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To keep communities safe, we must protect the integrity of every conviction so individuals trust our system and will cooperate with law enforcement to solve crimes. We also need to hold law enforcement accountable at all levels so innocent people are not at risk of being convicted as a result of fabricated evidence. 

Of all our duties, the obligation to protect the integrity of the justice system is the most imperative, and we must get it right. For Johnson, that means the people and systems working against Gardner need to let her do her job.  

Marilyn J. Mosby is the Baltimore state's attorney. Kimberly Foxx is the state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois.

Prosecutors Rachael Rollins, Aramis Ayala, Stephanie N. Morales, Diana Becton, Sherry Boston, Aisha N. Braveboy, Satana T. Deberry and Lynniece Washington also contributed to this column. 

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