This Week in Innocence

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Yesterday, Cole County, Missouri Circuit Judge Richard Callahan issued a stunning opinion in the case of Joshua Kezer, a 34-year-old man who has been in prison for 17 years for the 1992 murder of 19-year-old college student Angela Mischelle Lawless.

Kezer was convicted despite no physical evidence, DNA, or fingerprints linking him to the crime scene; no murder weapon; and no eyewitnesses to the actual murder. The evidence against him consisted of a witness who claimed to have saw him near Lawless’ car (that witness later recanted) and testimony from jailhouse informants who say Kezer confessed to them. Two of those informants have since recanted, and one has since testified for Kezer’s defense. Another says he made up his story about Kezer’s confession, but went on to testify for the state, anyway.

Callahan ordered Kezer released within 10 days unless state prosecutors can come up with a good reason to retry him. Callahan’s opinion also included a stinging rebuke of Kezer’s prosecutor, who happens to be former congressman, Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R-Mo.). Hulshof served four terms representing Missouri’s Ninth District, often citing his record as a capital crimes prosecutor in his campaigns. He was also the state GOP’s nominee for governor in 2008, but lost.

Callahan chastised Hulshof for withholding several key pieces of exculpatory evidence from Kezer’s trial attorneys, including the witness recantations, witnesses who contradicted state’s witnesses, and police notes mentioning other possible suspects.

In his closing argument at Kezer’s trial, Hulshof told the jury, “We put [Kezer] at the scene, we put a gun in his hand, we put the victim with him, we have got blood on his clothes.”

In ordering Kezer freed, Callahan said this week, “none of what Mr. Hulshof said in that final summary was true. … Testimony putting (Kezer) at the scene is totally discredited. No gun was ever found, and there is no credible evidence that he ever had a gun.” There was also no blood on Kezer.

Callahan added, “There is little about this case which recommends our criminal justice system. The system failed in the investigative and charging stage, it failed at trial, it failed at post-trial review and it failed during the appellate process.”

Yesterday, Hulshof issued a mind-bogglingly tone-deaf statement that he remains “confident in the jury’s verdict.”

Then there’s this:

An AP investigation found that in four cases — excluding the latest Kezer decision — prosecutorial errors by Hulshof led to death sentence reversals.

Another accused murderer won acquittal by a new jury at a second trial after his Hulshof-prosecuted conviction was rejected on appeal. A seventh defendant sentenced to life in prison without parole briefly won his freedom when a federal judge tossed out the conviction, although it was later restored.

Hulshof parlayed his prosecutorial excesses into a seat in Congress and, after losing his race for governor, to land at a presumably lucrative gig at a Kansas City-based law firm. Kezer, his victim, has spent half of his 34 years in prison for a crime it now seems fair to say he didn’t commit. And of course there’s also the niggling problem that if Kezer didn’t commit the crime, then Angela Lawless’ murderer remains free.

And yet it’s unlikely Hulshof will suffer much at all from all of this, other than a few days of bad press. Kezer will certainly never see a dime from Hulshof, thanks to the absolute immunity afforded to prosecutors–even in cases where they knowingly withhold exculpatory evidence, as it appears happened in this one. As Hulshof’s own career trajectory shows, a string of high-profile convictions can launch a promising career in politics and, in Hulshof’s case, the lifetime lucre that comes with having once held federal office (he was at one time considered for president of the University of Missouri). Every incentive points to winning convictions at any cost, and there’s rarely any personal or professional sanction for cheating.

I found this comment left at the Southeast Missourian website particularly eloquent:

I am constantly amazed at how many people think we have a justice system. We don’t, we have a legal system. Any similarity between law and justice is purely coincidental.

That’s certainly true in this case. And, it appears, in a number of other cases Kenny Hulshof prosecuted.

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54 Responses to “This Week in Innocence”

  1. #1 |  cassandra. | 

    For everyone who says Joshua Kezer “did” kill Lawless.
    He did not! I grew up all of my life hearing the story from
    my dad, my other uncles, and my grandpa and grandma.
    I’m honestly glad that sheriff reopened the case. Now
    I finally get to see my uncle again. It’s not fair that an innocent
    man would be sent to jail for 2 years and then sent off to
    prison for 14 years. Especially when he didn’t even do the crime
    in the first place. Just imagine if you where a young 17 year old guy (or girl for any matter) who was placed in the same situation. Think about it! It could happen to anyone at anytime and no one would see it even coming. I’m sorry for all of you who think and feel against me, but this is my uncle. I know the truth, and all of the evidence the court ever had on my uncle didn’t have anything to do with my uncle and the murder of Angela Mischelle Lawless. My uncle Josh didn’t even know who she was until he saw her picture on the obituary. I mean if he did commit the murder he would of recongized her. But he didn’t even know her at all or ever heard of her. If Mark Thomas Abbott is still alive they should blood test him and see if his DNA matches anything that existed at the crime scene. Because in a normal case these days you eliminate the first person to discover the body and then find witnesses. But that’s not what happened in this case. Instead they added other witnesses and questioned them, not Mark. Maybe he is the one who killend Angela Mischelle Lawless. Has anyone ever thought about that?!! (I’m not saying that Mark did kill Angela, I’m just saying it’s a possibility.)

  2. #2 |  James | 

    It is going to be difficult to make a case against Mark Abbot, if he is guilty. It is suspicious that he claims the man he saw driving a white car near the crime scene was first Hispanic, then black, and finally white. But he claims that he reached into the car and pulled on Mischelle’s shoulder–so he “contaminated” the crime scene. Also he as an identical twin Matt. In fact, the sheriff’s department is not certain whether it was Mark or Matt who walked into to report Mischelle’s murder.

  3. #3 |  Noel | 

    Josh is innocent and a good guy who has found God. If you dont have the facts then you need to shut up

  4. #4 |  Leon | 

    If the prosecutor and the sheriff conspired to railroad this innocent kid, they should be arrested for some crime like unlawful imprisonment, conspiracy to violate his civil rights or something to make it clear that there is a price topay for such prosecutorial misconduct.