Lamar Johnson was led into the Baltimore courtroom Tuesday with his arms and legs in the shackles worn by convicted murderers, but with a wide smile across his face.
For more than 13 years, through two failed appeals and countless crushed hopes, the West Baltimore man had waited for these moments in court.
Circuit Judge Charles Peters, without comment, granted Johnson a new trial on evidence that three new witnesses said Johnson wasn’t the gunman from a 2004 killing in East Baltimore. Then prosecutors dropped the old murder charge against him.
After spending more than a decade in prison for a murder that prosecutors now say he didn’t commit, Johnson was set free.
His mother, Kathy Taylor, seated in the courtroom, held crumpled tissues to her eyes. His attorneys, grinning, patted Johnson, 33, on his shoulders. He had been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.
Later, Johnson thanked his attorneys from a Washington, D.C., nonprofit who believed in his innocence.
“I’m just so blessed right now,” he said outside the courthouse. “There was a time I got frustrated. … Every appeal was shot down.
“This is a fresh start,” he continued, holding back tears. “I made some mistakes before I got locked up, but I’m not a murderer — I never was.”
Johnson became the second man exonerated during Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby’s nearly three years in office. Malcolm Bryant, who was serving a life sentence for the killing of a teenage girl, was exonerated by DNA evidence. After 17 years in prison, Bryant was set free in May 2016.
A team of attorneys from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, a nonprofit at The George Washington University, had worked for seven years to prove Johnson’s innocence. They discovered three witnesses who independently confirmed that Johnson wasn’t the gunman. The attorneys presented their evidence to Baltimore prosecutors. Together, both offices asked the court to free Johnson.
His wrongful conviction was based on a nickname. On the afternoon of March 26, 2004, Carlos Sawyer, 31, was shot in his stomach, shoulder and buttocks, and killed at a busy intersection outside Tench Tilghman Elementary School in East Baltimore. Witnesses told police the shooter went by a particular nickname, one that prosecutors declined to reveal Tuesday. But Johnson was misidentified as the nicknamed shooter, his attorneys said.
Sawyer’s family could not be reached Tuesday.
As an attorney with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Eily Raman screens letters from as many as 400 prisoners a year, but she said she froze when Johnson first wrote to her.
“I said, not only could this guy be innocent — he is innocent,” she said.
Johnson pleaded not guilty in 2005, and he has maintained his innocence. During his trial, witnesses said he simply resembled the shooter. Further, the jury seemed to ignore evidence that excluded Johnson as a suspect, Raman said.
“These cases generally take an army,” said Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. “It’s extremely difficult for people to cooperate and to cooperate 13 years after the fact. You’re not supposed to snitch in Baltimore City, and there are credible fears about what happens if you do snitch.”
The attorneys set out to find more witnesses from the killing. They found one man who said he saw the shooter and it wasn’t Johnson. A second witness told them he heard a different person confess to the killing months after Johnson was charged. Then a third witness, a woman, said the gunman ran past her after shooting, and the man wasn’t Johnson.
On Tuesday, prosecutor Lauren Lipscomb, chief of the state’s attorney office’s Conviction Integrity Unit, presented this evidence to the judge, asking for a new trial and then dropping the murder charge.
“This information was not known at trial,” she told the judge. “The aforementioned witnesses are independent to each other and do not know each other.”
A culture of witness intimidation and violence in Baltimore has deterred people from speaking out about Johnson’s wrongful conviction, Mosby said.
“We live in the home of the stop-snitching mentality,” she said. “Witness intimidation started here in Baltimore.”
Prosecutors and police have reopened the investigation to find Sawyer’s killer, she added.
“My heart breaks for the family of Carlos Sawyer," Mosby said. "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.”
After the hearing, a crowd gathered outside the courthouse for Johnson’s release. He walked out in new jeans, a Baltimore Orioles hat and a Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project T-shirt. His grandfather wrapped him in a bear hug on the sidewalk and the two men staggered backwards.
Jimmie Johnson, 74, broke down, saying he didn’t think he would live to see his grandson set free.
Lamar Johnson’s mother said she told her son to keep faith over those long years in prison.
“I told him, I didn’t want him to be bitter and angry,” Taylor said, “Justice will come.”
Two nurses from Mercy Hospital had learned of the case and waited to greet Johnson outside.
“It’s exciting,” nurse Michelle Sellmer said. “We want to see Lamar come out those doors for the first time in how many years?”
“Thirteen,” answered nurse Audra Dimler.
Johnson told the crowd he wants to earn a degree in business management and open a McDonald’s franchise. He already had plans for his first meal as a free man: a Big Mac. He plans to attend therapy to help him adjust, he said.
“Sometimes, I used to think I was going to die in prison,” he said. “I was treated like an animal in there … it’s rough.”
Crying and hugging, Johnson’s family lingered outside the courthouse. The No. 80 bus drove past. The downtown office workers lunched at a carryout across Lexington Street, and the afternoon sun fell in shadows between the downtown buildings. For the past decade Johnson had been removed from it all, locked up.
Now, the free world awaited him.