The Missouri Supreme Court has never squarely said how innocence claims from inmates sentenced to life in prison should be resolved. But trial judges keep inching closer to an answer.
On Aug. 14, a DeKalb County circuit judge found clear and convincing evidence that Ricky Kidd is innocent of the 1996 double murder for which he was convicted. Judge Daren L. Adkins ordered that Kidd be discharged unless the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office opts within 30 days to retry him.
A day after the ruling, Kidd was released on bond from the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron.
In a 107-page ruling, Adkins found that prosecutors failed to disclose exculpatory evidence that “would have changed the complexion of the whole trial.” He further found that all of the evidence now known about the case “more than establishes a reasonable probability that no reasonable juror would find Kidd guilty.”
Adkins added that “it would be difficult to imagine that the State could muster any evidence to prove Kidd’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt based on the evidence now available.”
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in a statement immediately following the ruling that her office was reviewing its options.
“Our obligation here as with every case is to seek the truth,” she said. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which defended the conviction on appeal, hasn’t said if it intends to appeal.
“Ricky’s case highlights how difficult it is to correct an injustice,” Tricia Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said in a news release.
Kidd, along with a second man, Marcus Merrill, was convicted of the Feb. 6, 1996, shooting deaths of George Bryant and Oscar Bridges in Kansas City. Kidd had an alibi — at the time of the murders, Kidd and his girlfriend were filing an application for a gun transfer permit at the county sheriff’s office.
Although there was no physical evidence linking Kidd to the crime, a Jackson County jury convicted him based on witness identifications, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for each murder.
Merrill has since testified in federal court that he did take part in the crime but that the other perpetrators were two men related to Kidd.
The two men were never charged. But Merrill’s public defender deposed them shortly before the trial. Although the prosecutor’s office attended those depositions, Adkins found that no one notified Kidd’s trial attorney that the depositions were occurring, and that she didn’t learn until years later that transcripts of those depositions existed.
Adkins also found that Bryant’s daughter, then 4, identified Kidd as the killer only during a poorly conducted out-of-court interview, and that the man who witnessed the killings was unreliable, given his drug-dealing history with one of the victims and his inconsistent statements.
Adkins wrote that there was “direct and circumstantial evidence” identifying Merrill and the two alternative suspects as “the actual perpetrators of the crime,” .
Missouri law is clear that credible proof of a defendant’s innocence can provide a “gateway” for a court to consider claims that otherwise would be barred.
But the law is unsettled on whether a defendant can raise a “freestanding” claim of innocence that doesn’t depend on demonstrating constitutional violations at trial.
In a 2003 case, the Missouri Supreme Court ordered a new trial for death-row inmate Joseph Amrine after witnesses recanted the testimony that had implicated him in a prison murder. But the precedent in that case has never been applied to a non-capital case.
In 2016, the Court of Appeals Western District refused to extend that precedent to Rodney Lincoln, an inmate serving a life sentence, saying the Supreme Court first needed to recognize such a claim. The Supreme Court declined to review the Lincoln ruling.
However, last year the Supreme Court threw out the murder conviction of a southeastern Missouri man, David Robinson, after a special master appointed by the high court concluded there was no credible evidence to support the conviction.
The Supreme Court didn’t issue a binding opinion in the case, but in an order said Robinson’s innocence claim could be considered because of the constitutional violations that occurred during his trial.
Adkins wrote that the Western District’s earlier ruling was “incongruent with the Missouri Supreme Court’s actions” in the Robinson case.
“Surely the incarceration of a prisoner in the absence of any substantial or persuasive evidence of guilt is a fundamental miscarriage of justice,” he wrote.
The case is State ex rel. Kidd v. Korneman, 18DK-CC00017.