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.