This Kansas City attorney never gave up hope for Lamar Johnson’s release
Attorney Lindsay Runnels of the Kansas City-based law firm Morgan Pilate has represented Lamar Johnson since 2015. Johnson was freed this week after serving 28 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Lamar Johnson wants to experience the joys of life — and its inconveniences.
“I want to hold a baby, and I want to stand in line and be frustrated because it’s not going fast enough,” Johnson said on Tuesday evening outside Maggie O’Brien’s restaurant near St. Louis Union Station. “All the things a lot of people may overlook and may be annoyed by, I want to experience.”
Johnson is now a free man after having spent 28 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Circuit Judge David Mason ruled on Tuesday that there was clear and convincing evidence that Johnson did not murder a man named Marcus Boyd in 1995.
By Johnson’s side in the courtroom when Mason announced his decision was Lindsay Runnels, an attorney for the Kansas City-based law firm Morgan Pilate. Runnels has represented Johnson since 2015 and was among several attorneys who worked to secure his freedom.
“I can’t even describe how I feel about my attorneys, especially Lindsay Runnels,” Johnson said. “She’s been a sister and a friend. God sent me his best angel with her.”
For her part, Runnels feels relief.
“I have a lot of joy seeing him doing what he wants to do. But overwhelmingly, it's a relief for me that this is over — finally, and the right result has happened,” Runnels explained on St. Louis on the Air.
The Midwest Innocence Project began representing Lamar Johnson in 2009, but for many years, the legal pathway for Johnson’s release was blocked.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s Conviction Integrity Unit first highlighted Johnson’s case as a wrongful conviction in 2019. But prosecutors did not have the recourse to set aside wrongful convictions until the Missouri legislature passed a law in 2021.
Prior to the passage of that 2021 law, and just a week after the Missouri Supreme Court dealt a significant blow to Johnson’s possible release, Runnels said on St. Louis on the Air that there was nothing that could make her give up on Johnson’s case.
Johnson’s case was ideal, Runnels explained, for pointing out the flaws in Missouri’s judicial system that didn’t allow prosecuting attorneys to vacate wrongful convictions.
“With the loss of Lamar Johnson’s case being so public, and the support for him coming from all across the country… it was, in my view, helpful to the legislature becoming educated about the tragedy of this case,” Runnels said.
Kevin Strickland was the first person set free after the legislature passed the 2021 law. Johnson’s release earlier this week further opens the door, Runnels said, so that others who were wrongfully convicted may one day walk free.
“Other prosecutors in Missouri, from St. Louis to Kansas City, and to all the rural areas in between, now have the power and the authority to do justice,” Runnels said. “If a case comes across their desk that they believe was an error, they can go to court, and they can fix it.. And we should expect prosecutors to do that.”
Runnels said she will continue to be Johnson’s advocate and that he will always have a home in her office and in her life. She’s already working with the Midwest Innocence Project on another case of someone who was wrongfully convicted.
For Johnson, in addition to holding a baby and experiencing everyday frustrations, he said he wants to experience everything about life. He wants to fly on a plane and see the ocean for the first time. His daughter is getting married in April and he’s excited to be there for that too.
Brian Munoz contributed to this report.
This story originally ran on “St. Louis on the Air” from STLPR.