For Immediate Release: 9/19/17
Central Baltimore — In 2005, Lamar Johnson was convicted of the first degree murder of Carlos Sawyer and sentenced to Life in prison in 2006. Today, Johnson was released from prison—having served nearly 14 years behind bars—after investigations conducted by the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) and the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) within the Office of the State's Attorney for Baltimore City (SAO) concluded that Johnson did not murder Sawyer on March 26, 2004.
In order to free Johnson from prison, the MAIP filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Circuit Court of Baltimore City. SAO CIU Chief Lauren Lipscomb filed a joint motion with MAIP in support of the petition. In a brief hearing before Judge Charles Peters, both the State and the defense presented their discovery of new evidence that strongly pointed to Johnson’s innocence.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Peters issued a ruling, setting aside the 2005 first degree murder and use of a handgun in a crime of violence verdicts; and, Lipscomb called for a new trial, and immediately dismissed the case.
Johnson walked out of Courthouse East a free man.
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and Lipscomb joined Johnson, as well as MAIP Executive Director Shawn Amburst, MAIP Legal Director Parisa Dehghani-Taft, Michelle Nethercott of the University of Baltimore Innocence Project, Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe, CIU Assistant State’s Attorneys Andrea Mason and Ashley Sewell, as well as SAO Investigator Al Marcus for a press availability after the hearing.
“In 2016, my office exonerated the late Malcolm Bryant—who was wrongly accused and convicted of the murder of Toni Bullock and served more than 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit,” said State’s Attorney Mosby outside the courthouse. “At that time, I said it was my administration’s first, but certainly not our last exoneration. And, just 16 months later, we’ve set another innocent man free.”
Johnson was accompanied by family who were overcome with emotion after he was released.
“Lamar’s case underscores the benefits of true collaboration between innocence organizations and real, robust conviction review units that look beyond procedural problems and dig for the truth,” said Shawn Armbrust, MAIP Executive Director. “This case should serve as a model for other units around the country.”
State’s Attorney Mosby’s Conviction Integrity Unit is the first of its kind in Maryland. The CIU features prosecutors, investigators, and support staff that solely focus on evaluating—and in qualifying cases re-investigating—claims of innocence.
According to the joint motion filed by Lipscomb, in June of 2016, MAIP met with the CIU regarding Johnson’s case. During the meeting, MAIP presented the results of their years-long investigation into Johnson’s wrongful conviction. Based on the strength of the MAIP’s investigation, the CIU launched a formal re-investigation of the case. The CIU investigation included on- and off-site interviews of dozens of witnesses, re-testing of evidence, and multiple trips to the crime scene.
According to Lipscomb’s motion, on March 26, 2005— the day Carlos Sawyer was shot— police began to follow a lead given to them hours after the shooting that identified the shooter by a particular nickname. Lipscomb’s motion says that Johnson was misidentified as the person who went by the nickname, and ultimately became the primary suspect of the original murder investigation.
MAIP and the CIU’s subsequent re-investigation of the case turned up several independent witnesses who witnessed the murder and were familiar with Johnson. Each of the witnesses independently confirmed that Johnson was not the shooter—and none of this information was known at the time of Johnson’s 2005 murder trial.
“My heart breaks for the family of Carlos Sawyer," continued State's Attorney Mosby. "They now must face the unsettling reality that Carlos’ attacker has not been brought to justice. Please know that Carlos is not forgotten, and my office will be working with Commissioner Davis and the Baltimore Police Department to do all that we can to investigate and prosecute the person who is truly responsible for Carlos’ death.”
The Sawyer family “has remained adamant that Mr. Johnson is not responsible for the murder,” according Lipscomb’s motion.
“On behalf of the criminal justice system, I’d like to apologize to Mr. Lamar Johnson and his family," concluded State's Attorney Mosby. "It is my hope that now that he is set free, that he is able to return home, heal, adjust to his rightly-deserved freedom, and live his life to its fullest potential. So long as I am at the helm of the State’s Attorney’s Office, we will remain committed to pursuing justice equally and fairly under the law for victims, witnesses, accusers, and the accused.”
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