Sunday, February 22, 2009

MO: After wrongful conviction, Kezer is seeking more than an apology

Joshua Kezer says he doesn't harbor any ill will toward Kenny Hulshof. But that doesn't mean he's not angry. On Wednesday, Kezer became a free man for the first time in nearly 16 years. The man who put him in jail was Hulshof, the ex-congressman and failed gubernatorial candidate who at the time was a special prosecutor working for the attorney general's office. According to the judge who set Kezer free, Hulshof never should have tried the case.

He ignored evidence that pointed to another suspect, said Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan in a scathing opinion that concluded Hulshof prosecuted an innocent man. As Hulshof argued Kezer's guilt to jurors in successfully obtaining a 60-year sentence for the killing of 19-year-old Angela Mischelle Lawless, this is what he said: "You are our only hope. We put him at the scene, we put a gun in his hand, we put the victim with him, we have got blood on his clothes …"

But jurors weren't told the truth, Callahan — himself a former prosecutor — wrote in his 44-page opinion: "We now know that none of what Mr. Hulshof said in that final summary was true. (The) testimony putting him at the scene is totally discredited. No gun was ever found, and there is no credible evidence that he ever had a gun … There is now uncontroverted evidence that he was not at the Halloween party ... New testing indicates there was no blood on his jacket."

Callahan's opinion criticized the entire judicial process. But for Kezer, Hulshof is the name he remembers. Asked as he was released whether he is angry at Hulshof, Kezer took a long pause while standing in the prison lobby. "Do I feel anger from time to time? Yes," he said. "I'm not going to act like I'm superhuman. … But I think that Hulshof has to live with his own actions. I'm not going to be judge and jury."

All too often, prosecutors do act like both judge and jury, says University of Missouri journalism professor Steve Weinberg. An investigative journalist by trade, Weinberg has had Hulshof in his sights for some time. In the late 1990s, Weinberg and the Center for Public Integrity embarked on an investigative project that studied 30 years of criminal cases and 12,000 opinions. Published in 2003, "Harmful Error" concluded that prosecutorial misconduct in U.S. courts is widespread.

The study found that between 1970 and 2003, judges or appeals courts cited prosecutorial misconduct in more than 2,000 criminal cases in which verdicts were reversed. Many of them, like the Kezer case, found a claim of "actual innocence."

Weinberg said that in his research in Missouri, Hulshof's name comes up over and over again when talking to defense attorneys about prosecutors who had a reputation for going too far. "This case is not at all surprising in terms of what Hulshof has done," Weinberg said. Hulshof has been accused by defendants of prosecutorial misconduct in at least five murder cases, other than the Kezer case. In four of those cases, death sentences were overturned because of trial errors, though the convictions stood.

In one 1996 case, Hulshof obtained a murder conviction of a Springfield banker, but the case was overturned because of inappropriate evidence Hulshof introduced at trial. In a second trial, the banker was acquitted of killing his wife.

Weinberg, who like Hulshof lives in Columbia, was instrumental in bringing the Kezer case into public view. In 2006, after Columbia social worker Jane Williams had been working for a decade to try to free Kezer from prison, Weinberg challenged his graduate journalism students to look into the case. Master's student Ben Poston, now an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, took the challenge. Poston's yearlong investigation was published in the Post-Dispatch in 2007. Now, nearly two years later, Kezer is free.

Hulshof has refused interview requests since the news of Kezer's release broke. He issued a statement that indicated he still believes the man he helped convict is guilty.

Weinberg said he's not surprised that Hulshof is sticking to his guns. "I just don't get the inability of prosecutors to say I'm sorry," he said. "We all make mistakes. Hulshof owes Kezer an apology." Kezer wants more than an apology. He says he plans a civil suit against the state for being wrongfully convicted. The case will pit an innocent man who had been jailed from the time he was 18 against the prosecutor who put him there. The man at the helm of the state Kezer seeks to sue? That's Gov. Jay Nixon, Hulshof's boss during the Kezer trial. Nixon defeated the former prosecutor in the race for governor.

Kezer believes a corrupt system run by politicians put him in jail and stole his youth. Now he wants them to pay. "I'm the winner today," Kezer said as he was released from prison. Then he turned his thoughts to Hulshof. "My life from this day forward will prove him wrong."

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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