Shockwaves ran through the criminal justice system last February when Cole County Circuit Judge Richard B. Callahan exonerated a man who served nearly 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
Joshua Kezer was found guilty of the 1992 murder of Angela Mischelle Lawless at a jury trial in Scott County. Former U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, last year’s Republican gubernatorial candidate, led the prosecution.
Callahan, in ruling on Kezer’s writ for habeas corpus, slammed the police and prosecutorial work that led to Kezer’s conviction.
“There is little about this case which recommends our criminal justice system,” he wrote in a 45-page opinion dissecting new and old evidence in the case. “The system failed in the investigative and charging stage, it failed at trial, it failed at the post-trial review, and it failed during the appellate process.”
Kezer was 17 years old at the time of the murder. Witnesses at his December 2008 habeas hearing before Callahan testified Kezer was in Kankakee, Ill., on the night of the murder, hundreds of miles from Benton, where Lawless was found dead in her car on the exit ramp of Interstate 55. Kezer regularly spent time in both Kankakee, where his father lived, and southeast Missouri, where his mother lived.
Callahan noted in his ruling that the testimony of these alibi witnesses was credible. Significantly less credible were the three jailhouse informants who claimed Kezer confessed to the murder, the judge wrote.
One of those informants originally said only that he saw Kezer with a gun and that Kezer was in a gang; months later, the informant said Kezer confessed to him, too, St. Louis lawyer Stephen R. Snodgrass said. Snodgrass assisted Charles A. Weiss in Kezer’s habeas case.
Four other men had also implicated Kezer in the murder. According to Snodgrass, one man recanted his story but testified for the prosecution. Another pleaded the Fifth Amendment at trial and testified for Kezer by deposition in the habeas proceeding; he said the Scott County sheriff at the time intimidated him into making a statement against Kezer, the lawyer said.
In addition, a third man avoided testifying against Kezer at trial by changing the story he and the others had agreed upon; instead of saying Kezer confessed to the murder, he said Kezer had told him he was going to murder somebody, Snodgrass said. Finally, the last man recanted his story and testified for Kezer at both the criminal trial and the habeas proceeding, the lawyer said.
Callahan also pointed out the lack of physical evidence linking Kezer to the murder. Recent DNA testing of blood found under Lawless’ fingernails points to Leon Lamb, a boyfriend who was the last person to see her before her death.
“The new evidence so thoroughly impeaches the trial testimony against Josh Kezer that no reasonable juror could convict him on the basis of the remaining evidence,” Callahan wrote.
Kezer walked out of prison a free man on Feb. 18, a day after Callahan set aside Kezer’s conviction. Scott County Prosecutor Paul R. Boyd had decided not to retry the case.
In August, Kezer filed a civil rights lawsuit against William F. Ferrell, the Scott County sheriff from January 1977 until January 2005; and Brenda Schiwitz, a deputy under Ferrell and the lead investigator of the murder of Lawless. The lawsuit alleges damages of more than $10 million for Kezer’s loss of liberty, among other things, Snodgrass said.
Neither Hulshof, then an assistant attorney general, nor Christy Baker-Neal, a former Scott County prosecutor, was named as a defendant in the suit. According to the lawsuit, Hulshof and Baker-Neal, “based on their public statements since Kezer’s exoneration,” weren’t aware of the documents that cast doubt on Kezer’s guilt.
Snodgrass and Weiss, both of Bryan Cave, now represent Kezer in his civil lawsuit. Weiss heard about Kezer’s plight in 2006 through the American College of Trial Lawyers, and Snodgrass volunteered when Weiss asked for assistance on the case.
Since being released from prison, Kezer, 34, has been working for a building contractor, putting up drywall, painting and other interior finish work, Snodgrass said.
“He’s gainfully employed doing that and just trying to get his life back together, get back into a normal social life that he missed out on during the time he was incarcerated,” he said.
Snodgrass, who typically handles government contracts and commercial litigation, said working for Kezer’s exoneration is “one of the most gratifying things I’ve done as a lawyer.”
“I’m not one of those people that thinks every third person in prison is innocent,” he said. “I tend to be pretty conservative about that. I think maybe the lesson for somebody like me is whatever the percentage is, … if it’s just a handful of people, that’s a handful too many.”
The civil lawsuit is Kezer v. Ferrell et al., 1:09-cv-109.