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 |  Zargon | 

    Agents of the state intentionally ruin person’s life for personal gain, face no consequences, flatly state they’ll keep on doing it. Par the course.

    I suppose it’s nice that a judge exists who’s willing to try and limit the damage done to this guy’s life, but it’s not fixing any causes, it’s just treating a particularly egregious symptom.

    And I really like that quote at the end.

  2. #2 |  BamBam | 

    Perfect example where private justice is needed.

  3. #3 |  Edwin Sheldon | 

    Considering essentially all of the State’s evidence rested on the testimony of lying jailhouse informants who later recanted, and Hulshof knew he had no case without the testimony that he knew was false, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he also knew that Kezer was innocent. Because he knew Kezer was innocent, it would not be unreasonable to make Hulshof serve seventeen years in prison. The fact that he is merely suffering a little bad press further proves the point regarding a legal system vs. a justice system.

  4. #4 |  SJE | 

    At the very least, Hulshof should be disbarred. He won’t be getting any sweet law firm jobs after that.

  5. #5 |  Chris Berez | 

    How do people like this, who are clearly innocent, manage to hang on for so long? I mean, Jesus Fucking Christ, 17 years? If that were me, I don’t know how I would last a year without giving up and committing suicide. But someone like this can hang on for 17 years? I don’t know how I could do that and not completely lose my sanity. I don’t know how I could be in a situation like that and not be completely consumed with despair and anger.

  6. #6 |  Michael | 

    Edwin,
    My thoughts exactly. He needs to serve some time! Maybe someone could conspire to set him up, for a crime he did commit and get him some time in prison. But, I can bet, even if he was found guilty of murder, it would not be, even, ten years! That would be their justice! In reality, he will never have any problems, as a result of this “mistake”!

    SJE,

    I think that is a dream. He will just taken out of the lime light for a while, then allowed to go about his business of practice of “law”, as stated above, in our damaged “legal” system.

  7. #7 |  chance | 

    @ Chris #5 – If I were convicted of a murder I didn’t commit, and lost several decades of my life due to police/prosecutorial misconduct…well, let’s just say that if I couldn’t get justice I’d settle for vengence.

  8. #8 |  Cynical in CA | 

    “And yet it’s unlikely Hulshof will suffer much at all from all of this, other than a few days of bad press.”

    Very true. Hulshof would suffer, however, if Jim Bell had anything to say about it.

  9. #9 |  MacK | 

    I just read this, and watched the videos a few minutes ago.
    It is mind boggling at just how badly, or easily you can be railroaded.

    Defense witnesses placed him in another town, but jailhouse informants, who were offered time off of their sentences said he confessed to them. In fact one of the jailhouse snitches pointed the police to Kezer involving him to begin with.

    One witness said she saw him argue with the victim at a party, she recanted saying she now knows it was another person. Two other girls at the party said that he was not there at all, they did not testify.

    A witness who said the person seen near the victim was bi-racial, (Kezer is white), picked him out of a photo lineup 5 months later.

    DNA under her fingernails is linked to an ex-boyfriend. This was not known back in 93.

    His was the only photo of 6 with the words “POLICE DEPARTMENT” in bold letters on it, and was picked 5 months after the crime.

  10. #10 |  Bob | 

    Wow, just wow. This case is messed up from beginning to end, even up to the comments on the site.

    Basically, the Police just found the first gang banger they could round up and jacked him.

    Investigation? Evidence? Fuck that! Much better chance of an arrest if you pay someone to randomly rat out someone.

  11. #11 |  David | 

    I hate to say “we oughtta’ have a law…” but we’re long past needing a law banning the testimony of “jailhouse witnesses”. If the prosecution can’t make a case without these scumbags, then I guess it means they can’t make a case.

    The next person who complains to me about the hordes or criminals “released on a technicality” is getting punched in the larynx.

  12. #12 |  wunder | 

    This post just reinforces my November election decisions on judges. I looked at all their little blurbs online before the election, and if they owned up to being a former prosecutor, they were off my list. Admittedly, it’s not perfect, but it’s the best way I could think of with limited time to research everyone.

  13. #13 |  Mike Leatherwood | 

    I ask that Radley change his blog title from The Agitator to The Infuriator. 17 years. I think I might have nightmares about that tonight. That man lost his young years to nothing more than evil in the form of pride, greed, and malfeasance. And Miss Lawless’s family will be hurt once again.

  14. #14 |  J Mo | 

    On an old episode of the Simpson’s that was on yesterday, Bart goes on trial for murdering Principal Skinner. At the end of the episode right before Bart is going to get convicted, Skinner enters the courtroom to explain he wasn’t murdered, he just got trapped in his garage for a week. Anyway, after Skinner says this, there’s the following exchange,

    Prosecuter: “Your honour, we ask that principal skinner’s testimony be stricken from the record.” Judge: “DENIED!!!!”

    Anyway, I never thought until reading this site that prosecutors would actually go to those lengths to secure a conviction. This was supposed to be a joke, instead it’s pretty much reality. Sad.

  15. #15 |  Radley Balko | 

    #12 —

    Except that the judge in this case–who did the right thing–is also a former prosecutor.

    I don’t think all prosecutors are bad. I just think the good ones have to resist some powerful incentives toward cheating and cutting corners.

    It would be nice to see a criminal defense attorney occasionally appointed to the bench, though.

  16. #16 |  fwb | 

    There is one way to deal with Hulshof: vigilante justice. Hang the bastard and put a sign around his neck warning others.

    Teeny weeny syndrome run amok.

    I have yet to meet an honest/honorable judge, prosecutor, or other state agent.

  17. #17 |  Nick T | 

    “Confident in the Jury’s verdict?” What a fucking piece of beatle shit!

    These idiots who act like a jury’s decisions excuses them of their wrongdoing or actually justifies it!!?? The jury reached the decision they did because YOU rigged the whole fucking process!! It takes a person that adequate curse words have not yet been invented to describe to deny someone his day in court and then use the result of that kangaroo shammockery in your defense.

    It’s at the point now where people who do these things should be called what they are: terrorists. Not to belabor a word that has been overused to the point of maninglessness, but what else would you call someone who destroys innocent lives to pursue completely external gains (career advancement, teaching a lesson to real potential criminals)?

  18. #18 |  Aresen | 

    I saw Kenny Hulshof near Michelle Lawless’ car that night.

    /lying mode

    Is that enough to send him to prison for 17 years?

  19. #19 |  wunder | 

    #15
    I completely agree, but just don’t know what else to do. Who has time to dig through the case histories of all the judges that were running (20 +/- to the best of my recollection)? I wouldn’t even know where to begin to look, since I’m not a lawyer or trained researcher.
    I guess not voting for the judges is an option, but that seems to be a cop-out.

  20. #20 |  Burdell | 

    Radley,

    Your site more than anything else is persuading me to become a prosecutor–so that shit like this won’t happen in at least one office.

    b

  21. #21 |  Bob | 

    Nick,

    I agree completely. My first thought was “Holy travesty of justice, Batman! How could the jury find this guy guilty??”

    Simple. A line of people you’re supposed to be able to trust took the stand and lied through their teeth with the express intent of sending an innocent man to jail. If we actually had a justice system, felony charges would be being handed out like candy to the people responsible for that.

  22. #22 |  Roger X | 

    Most amazing to me is that I have MET this prosecutor, when he was a congressman representing Columbia, Missouri. He played instrumentals alongside the choir at my mother-in-law’s church! I spoke with him for a few minutes; he seemed like a decent human being. Wonder what would lead him to prosecute people into prison with such little evidence. :(

  23. #23 |  Aresen | 

    @ #22 Roger X

    I am not going to godwin the thread, but it has often been noted that people in their public persona behave much differently than in their private persona.

    How many times have we heard the “he seemed like a nice, ordinary guy” mantra about someone who has just committed mass murder?

  24. #24 |  Bob | 

    “he seemed like a decent human being. Wonder what would lead him to prosecute people into prison with such little evidence. :(”

    Because:

    A: He clearly lacks any actual ethics.

    B: He could do so no repercussions to himself.

    c: He wanted to be a Congressman.

  25. #25 |  Marty | 

    I hope Kezer is able to get some kind of compensation for the life he’s lost. I can’t imagine having half my life (or my daughter’s life) snatched away.

    At least this is not another Maryland story… The scope of govt abuse is staggering. I’m with Cynical- JIM BELL!

  26. #26 |  Dave Krueger | 

    This is just another case where the guy is almost certainly guilty, but his scheming lawyers got him off on the flimsy technicality that the prosecution’s evidence wasn’t spotless and perfectly credible. Just remember, lack of evidence that he did it is not evidence that he didn’t do it. How can you claim Kezer is innocent anyway? Innocent people don’t spend 17 years in prison. Just one more reason we should be executing these bastards immediately after trial and nip this seditious, authority-challenging, second-guessing right in the bud.

    How the hell did a judge like that slip through the tough-on-crime screening process anyway? They shouldn’t be getting paid with taxpayer dollars just to be letting convicted murderers weasel off the hook.

    Even if it were one of those ultra-rare situations where they got the wrong guy, we as a civilization, must be bravely willing to make the painful sacrifice of an occasional innocent in order to keep our wives and children safe from evil people.

    You guys are such a bunch of liberal left-wing socialist commie pussies.

  27. #27 |  Bernard | 

    The weirdest part of this for me is not that this happened (because the incentive systems of the adversarial system combined with the gross inadequacy of public defence resources makes it possible if not probable).

    The weirdest thing is that people can knowingly cause the imprisonment of patently innocent people, ruin their lives, cost the state a fortune and end the investigation while the guilty party is still at large and then go home at night without having some kind of mental breakdown at some point in the 17 years since.

    It must take a real lack of emotion or some sizable mental gymnastics to be able to do that without feeling so guilty that you can’t carry on your job.

  28. #28 |  parse | 

    If Hulshof “remains confident of the jury’s verdict” that means he believes a murderer is about to be released from prison because Hulshof violated rules well-known to any competent lawyer. I wonder what Hulshof thinks should be done to a prosecutor who is responsible for something like that?

  29. #29 |  KBCraig | 

    The sad thing about Krueger’s satire is that it accurately reflects the sentiments of a lot of people who vote for prosecutors and judges.

  30. #30 |  chancelikely | 

    This is precious small consolation, but there is a thing worse than doing 17 years for a crime you didn’t commit: doing 18 years for a crime you didn’t commit. Or getting the chair or a needle for it.

    Which brings an even bigger cloud to this silver lining: there are undoubtedly other people who have been punished even more than Kezer for the unforgivable crime of being an easy target for an ambitious prosecutor.

  31. #31 |  ktc2 | 

    Bernard,

    Like that legal secretary for an appellate court justice who recently committed suicide because she had for years done as the chief justice instructed, that being, any appelant not represented by an attorney stamp denied and return unseen by any judge. She actually left a note explaining that is why she killed herself.

    I wonder what (I doubt anything) ever happened to that judge.

  32. #32 |  Cynical in CA | 

    “It must take a real lack of emotion or some sizable mental gymnastics to be able to do that without feeling so guilty that you can’t carry on your job.”

    According to fwb, public officials don’t act emotionlessly.

    I have my doubts.

  33. #33 |  Whim | 

    If Radley’s website doesn’t thoroughly depress you, then read the following three books about innocent people sent to prison for very long sentences:

    “Actual Innocence” by Barry Schreck et al

    “Death and Justice: An Expose of Oklahoma’s Death Row” by Mark Furhman

    “The Innocent Man” by John Grisham (Grisham’s first Non-Fiction best-seller).

  34. #34 |  Florida executes rapist who strangled Tampa girl - Page 2 | 

    [...] Tampa girl A couple of stories about prosecuting people who were known to be innocent: The Agitator Blog Archive This Week in Innocence Whatcom County deputy sheriffs Jeremy Freeman and Trevor Vander Veen found responsible for civil [...]

  35. #35 |  Aresen | 

    ‘BIG STORY TOMORROW’ teaser.

    I’m guessing 90%:
    1) Hayne
    2) West
    3) Mississippi

    5%:
    4) Maryland

    4%
    5) Florida, Illinois, Texas

    1%
    6) Other.

  36. #36 |  Nick T | 

    Aresen,

    I think Radley said the story involved our favorite forensic fraud duo. So that’s gotta be Hayne and West. I am so excited.

  37. #37 |  EdinTally | 

    #20

    Are you high? MAYBE you could make a difference as an elected DA (until the next election when your opponent says you are soft on crime) but short of that, you will tow the line like the rest.

  38. #38 |  Roger X | 

    Aresen: “How many times have we heard the “he seemed like a nice, ordinary guy” mantra about someone who has just committed mass murder?”

    Far fewer than the times we’ve heard, “I’ve always known there was something a little ‘off’ about that guy” mantra in a similar situation?

    Sadly, these are the kind of people who go into law and politics. My sister’s in law school, and had to take a year off. She wanted to be a “social justice”/ACLU type, and realized that pretty much anyone who actually cared about justice were ending up burning themselves out as public defenders, while the “sharks” were lining up the ways they can game the system by using the rule of law to “win” cases and gain fame and glory.

  39. #39 |  CEH | 

    #15, ” It would be nice to see a criminal defense attorney occasionally appointed to the bench, though.” In the City of Chesapeake, former well known defense attorney John Brown is now a Circuit Court judge, going on 2 years I think. Don’t know how he’s been deciding cases though, if it is different (better, fairer, more just) from other judges that were former prosecutors though.

  40. #40 |  Sinister Eyebrow | 

    Most judges appointed to the bench are former prosecutors–it’s just the nature of the system. DAs are connected to government and to the political people who make the decisions on appointments. I’ve seen good and I’ve seen terrible results from this. Most do their level best as Judges. One other thing to remember, is that most DAs who stop working for the gov’t, turn around and become defense attorneys.

    Unethical behavior on the part of prosecutors is not all that uncommon. It falls to the bar association to act against them and in most counties, the bar association does not like to crack down on a prosecutor. Just take a look at the prosecutors in NC who lied to get death sentences in NC. They got nothing more than a slap on the wrist from the NC bar.

  41. #41 |  Aresen | 

    @Roger X #38:

    I agree that, more often than not, the guys who whack a whole bunch of people are known to be “off” before their actions are known.

    I was only trying to make the point that people can be completely corrupt even though, on personal acquaintance, they seem normal, respectable and considerate.

  42. #42 |  Cynical In CA | 

    “The sad thing about Krueger’s satire is that it accurately reflects the sentiments of a lot of people who vote for prosecutors and judges.”

    What amazes me about Krueger’s satire is that he got positive karma with no indication that what he wrote was satire except for us knowing his worldview.

    Because, frankly, it was scary how realistically he conveyed that rather common opinion.

  43. #43 |  Aresen | 

    #42 Cynical in CA

    His comment was grammatically correct. That was a dead giveaway.

  44. #44 |  newageblues | 

    #31, ktc2, is it possible to be more specific about the when and where? I’d like to read more about that, depressing as it will be.

  45. #45 |  Jennifer | 

    Its not just the judge who deserves a pat on the back for this one. Its the current sheriff. He is the one who reopened this case when others in law enforcement were telling him he should be happy there was a conviction.
    below is a link. If it doesn’t work go to http://www.kfvs12.com thats where the story is

    http://www.kfvs12.com/global/video/flash/popupplayer.asp?ClipID1=3461838&h1=Kezer%20released%20from%20prison%2C%20prosecutor%20not%20retrying%20case&vt1=v&at1=News&d1=190667&LaunchPageAdTag=News&activePane=info&rnd=3734243

  46. #46 |  Frank | 

    #26 #29 WE HAVE A WINNAH!

    When does the lawsuit get filed for 17 years of false imprisonment? I’d like to see this ex-prosecutor ex-congressman become ex-human, myself. Maybe demotion to medical research project and some vivisection sans anesthesia or sepsis.

  47. #47 |  Marty | 

    More MO news this morning- with all of our favorite elements… cameras, officials, confusion about the system they upheld biting them…
    Robinson, a former state rep, was drunk and hit a pedestrian. he and his wife drove away to a school, switched places so she’s driving, and returned to the scene. His wife administered aid to the victim while the ambulance responded. He called his friend the sheriff, also.
    The switcheroo was caught on the school surveillance camera!
    this pos never even got out of his truck to try to help the guy he hit… of course, he’s stunned that the court won’t overlook ‘the biggest mistake of my life’….

    Too bad it wasn’t Hulshoff, instead of Robinson.

  48. #48 |  gDavid | 

    Hang this miscreant by the neck real slowly until dead. Make it public on the courthouse lawn. Post a big sign that this person in the name of the state failed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth;, but lied to try to get a human killed to further his own ambition. Any lawyer who lies should be immediately hanged by the neck until dead. Period. I’m not a liberal, but a conserative, however, I cannot stand any public offical who can be so evil.

  49. #49 |  Ben | 

    Here’s the Columbia, MO write up on the story (with associated comments).

    http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2009/feb/19/inmate-free-after-15-years/

    Unfortunately, some of the comments are suggesting that Kezer is still guilty because he has gang tattoos on him.

  50. #50 |  Pamela | 

    Someone asked how you survive 17 years in prison without killing yourself. You do what Kezer did, join a gang, he was young he needed protection. It’s a matter of survival. You get tattoos because it is the one thing they can’t take from you. Life goes on in prison. There is a whole lot of living going on, even for the innocent. It’s not really living, it’s surviving, but at some point you decide to live, not die. You forget about the free world, but you hold on to that little bit of hope just in case. You become a convict, which is to say, you live better than an inmate. You’re days consist of living better, it’s a lot of work. I’d like to see old Husholf (or whatever his name is) survive without gang protection, in fact he couldn’t get any, he’d have to be in protective custody with the pussys. I doubt after what he did, he’d survive long in the general population.

  51. #51 |  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.)

  52. #52 |  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.

  53. #53 |  Noel | 

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

  54. #54 |  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.

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