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Missouri's biggest roadblock in freeing the wrongfully convicted? Attorney General Eric Schmitt

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Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno and Jeff Roberson
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AP and KCUR 89.3
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says that Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt will likely “waste” an enormous amount of taxpayer money on preventing Lamar Johnson’s case from getting a hearing.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says that Eric Schmitt’s office has been trying "bizarre" and costly tactics to stop the innocence cases of three men who've served decades in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Up until last year, if elected prosecutors believed a person was wrongfully convicted, there wasn’t anything they could do about it.

A state law, passed in May 2021, changed that, giving them a pathway to present evidence of innocence to a judge. And since then, three prosecutors have filed motions to set people free from prison or clear their records.

On the day the law went into effect in August 2021, Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker filed a motion to vacate Kevin Strickland’s murder conviction. He was set free last November after serving 43 years of a life sentence.

Washington County Prosecuting Attorney Joshua Hedgecorth followed in May, filing a motion regarding the conviction of Michael Politte, who was released on parole on April 22 after serving 23 years for murder. His case is still pending.

Then in August came St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s motion for Lamar Johnson, who Gardner believes is innocent of a 1994 murder.

“The circuit attorney cannot, and will not, turn a blind eye to the conviction of an innocent person,” Johnson’s motion filed in the 22nd Circuit Court states.

All three cases have one thing in common: Fierce opposition from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

In the Strickland case, Baker said Schmitt’s office tried a number of “bizarre” ways to keep Strickland from getting his day in court. Schmitt even attempted to get the case renamed, from “State of Missouri v. Kevin Strickland” to “Jean Peters Baker v. State of Missouri,” which Baker said was an effort to shift the focus away from an innocent man and onto her personally.

Since May, Hedgecorth and Politte’s attorneys have been hit with a constant stream of motions from the attorney general’s office, which included opposing the case from being heard in Washington County.

Last month, a St. Louis judge set a Dec. 12 hearing for Johnson. That same day, Schmitt’s office added five attorneys to the case.

The attorney general will likely “waste” an enormous amount of taxpayer money on preventing Johnson’s case from getting a hearing, Baker said, just as he did in Strickland’s and Politte’s cases.

But if the pattern holds true, she predicts Schmitt’s team won’t have any evidence to present in court.

“At the end of the day, I was embarrassed for them,” Baker said of Schmitt’s office’s performance during Strickland’s hearing. “If [Johnson and Politte] get a fair setting…the attorney general’s office is in trouble because they cannot compete in a courtroom where actual justice is being sought, facts are being sought, and real evidence is being discussed. They can’t win there.”

Schmitt, who is also the Republican nominee for Missouri’s open U.S. Senate seat, responded to the criticism through a spokesman, who said in an email: “It has been and continues to be one of the duties of the attorney general’s office to uphold criminal convictions, and that’s what we’ve worked to do.”

Schmitt’s opposition

While Baker filed a motion to vacate Strickland’s conviction in August 2021, it took her more than two months to get into a courtroom. She blames Schmitt’s opposition.

But in Johnson’s case, it’s been more than three years since the attorney general began fighting to prevent Gardner from getting a hearing.

“It’s got to be gut wrenching for her,” Baker said of Gardner.

Gardner’s office declined comment due to the ongoing litigation.

Johnson’s was the first exoneration case that Gardner’s conviction-integrity unit brought forth in July 2019. It was a case that prosecutors statewide were watching closely.

Gardner hit a major roadblock when the circuit judge asked Schmitt to intervene.

Schmitt argued all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court that the state’s elected prosecutors don’t have the power to ask for a new trial, even if they have evidence that a person has languished in prison for decades wrongfully.

The state’s highest court sided with Schmitt in March 2021, saying the Missouri legislature had to pass a law creating a pathway for prosecutors to correct wrongful convictions.

Legislators did that last year.

While the new state law gave Gardner and other prosecutors the authority to address wrongful convictions, it also gave the attorney general the power to insert himself into these cases.

The attorney general is not a party in these cases, but he has the ability to “file a motion to dismiss the motion to vacate or to set aside the judgment in any appeal filed by the prosecuting or circuit attorney,” the law states.

In Politte’s case, Schmitt’s team filed a motion to dismiss, saying that Hedgecorth didn’t have jurisdiction because the case changed venues to St. Francois County many years ago.

However, Hedgecorth responded in court documents that the Washington County prosecutor was required by state law “to prosecute this case after the change of venue — at trial, sentencing, and any motion hearings over the last twenty years. The Washington County prosecuting attorney never lost jurisdiction.”

The judge in Politte’s case denied all of the attorney general’s motions, but Schmitt appealed.

Hedgecorth did not respond to a request for comment.

Baker says she sympathizes with the struggle both Gardner and Hedgecorth going through — knowing innocent people are languishing in prison because of Schmitt’s actions.

“It hurts,” Baker said. “That’s why I get so upset with the attorney general’s office because they seem to believe it’s just sort of an academic kind of process. And it’s not. We’re talking about real people’s lives and the value of the criminal justice system.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Rebecca Rivas covers civil rights, criminal justice and immigration for the Missouri Independent. She has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation's leading African-American newspaper.
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