Nov. 6, 2010 -- After almost 16 years of imprisonment for a murder he said from the start he did not commit, and more than a year of freedom marked by near poverty, Joshua Kezer is a millionaire.
The settlement he won from Scott County, Missouri, constitutes a happy ending despite the horrors of wrongful imprisonment. "I am alive, free, at peace and headed toward something special in Christ Jesus," says Kezer. "Case closed."
Kezer's nightmare began with the murder of Angela M. Lawless, 19, on November 8, 1992, near Benton, the Scott County seat. Lawless, a nursing student at Southeast Missouri State University in nearby Cape Girardeau, was found dead in her car, shot three times.
The investigation by Scott County Sheriff William F. Ferrell and Deputy Brenda Schiwitz seemed to be growing cold until five months later, when Kezer, then just 17, found himself charged with murder. Four men in a nearby jail, all being held for serious crimes, told Scott County authorities that Kezer, whom they knew slightly, had committed the murder.
The child of a broken home, Kezer was splitting his time between Kankakee, Illinois, with his father and Cape Girardeau, Missouri, with his mother. Because he said he had never met Lawless and had been in Kankakee, 350 miles from the murder scene, on November 8, Kezer felt certain that police and prosecutors would believe his claims of innocence after they investigated.
After the jail informants mentioned Kezer, Schiwitz showed Kezer's photograph to Mark Abbott, the first man who had called sheriff's deputies about seeing Lawless' lifeless body inside her car on a highway exit ramp. Abbott had previously provided multiple descriptions of somebody in a small white car near the exit ramp; none of those descriptions approximated Kezer's appearance – none even mentioned a white man. Suddenly, however, Abbott identified Kezer, a white man, as a lookalike.
Nothing shook the resolve of Scott County law enforcement authorities to convict Kezer, even after the testimony of the jailhouse snitches, who had come forward in hopes of lessening their own sentences, began to crumble. Two of the informants recanted their accusations. (One of those two later recanted his recantation.) A third informant departed Missouri and never testified at Kezer's trial. The fourth informant offered contradictory statements implicating Kezer and exonerating Kezer.
Informants housed in Scott County jail with Kezer after his arrest told Ferrell and Schiwitz that Kezer maintained his innocence without exception; one of the informants said Kezer confessed to the murder, recanted that statement about Kezer, then later implicated Kezer again.
No Physical Evidence
When Kezer went to trial in 1994, no physical evidence connected him to the murder victim -- no blood, no prints, no fingernail scrapings, no murder weapon. Apparent blood spatter on his clothes had turned out to be not blood at all, but vegetable matter. The case against him rested largely on the testimony of the informants.
But in closing statements at the trial, prosecutor Kenny Hulshof, a state official dispatched by the attorney general to try high-profile cases, told the jury that "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."
On June 17, 1994, a jury convicted Kezer, and then a judge sentenced him to 60 years.
In hindsight, almost every wrongful conviction looks inexplicable. How could police have bungled the investigation? How could the prosecutor have failed to notice the holes in the case? How could a dozen jurors all put aside critical judgment and fail to exercise "reasonable doubt"? How could a judge allow the verdict to stand?
Kezer asked those questions, naturally, but felt unsure how to reverse the error. The criminal justice system is skewed toward finality -- after a jury has voted to convict and a judge has sentenced the defendant, receiving a second chance is almost impossible.
Some innocent inmates became avid letter writers and prison lawyers, seeking every avenue for relief. Most of them get no help, but never give up. Kezer was not like that; his persistence was different.
"I carved out my own path as a man and prayed a lot to my Lord and to my Savior, Jesus Christ," Kezer said in a recent interview with ABC News.
But Kezer's earthly savior came in the form of Jane Williams, a social worker with 30 years experience and also a jail ministry volunteer through her church. Williams resides in Columbia, Missouri, but traveled often to the Jefferson City prison, about 30 miles south. She had seen Kezer during a prison church service and noticed his demeanor. As a result, she made inquiries and learned that others in the church community believed in Kezer's innocence.
Williams proceeded deliberately. "I am not one easily taken in by inmate stories" about their innocence, Williams told ABC News.
She made Kezer's acquaintance, starting to study his case despite her lack of legal training. She became his advocate, persuading lawyers and journalists to investigate.
After Ferrell announced he would leave the sheriff's office, Rick Walter won the November 2004 election to succeed him. Walter had examined the crime scene the night of Lawless' murder, had never felt comfortable with Kezer as the suspect, and reopened the investigation during 2005. Walter cooperated with lawyers from the St. Louis firm of Bryan Cave in seeking freedom for Kezer.
Evidence Withheld From the Defense
Kezer's advocates were able to tear the prosecution case to pieces. Most importantly, although it is mandatory that law enforcement officers disclose to the defendant all evidence suggesting innocence, Ferrell and Schiwitz had withheld such material.
At least three documents improperly withheld from Kezer and his lawyers could have changed the outcome of the prosecution: An interview of witness Mark Abbott by Scott County Police Department officer Bobby Wooten, during which Abbott named a specific individual other than Kezer as near the crime scene; notes handwritten by Schiwitz in which she expressed suspicions about Abbott's accounts and wondered if he could be the murderer; a written statement given by one of the jailhouse informants to a sheriff's deputy bolstering the credibility of the recantation concerning Kezer's involvement.
Schiwitz's notes were part of a notebook that she claimed had been destroyed in 1993. After the notebook was discovered intact at the courthouse, Schiwitz testified in 2008 that she had given the notebook to prosecutor Hulshof. Schiwitz did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News.
The new evidence reached Cole County, Missouri, Judge Richard Callahan. The Jefferson City prison is in Cole County, giving Callahan jurisdiction in the post-conviction proceeding. In a February 17, 2009, ruling, Callahan found the totality of evidence suggested Kezer's actual innocence, and that no reasonable juror would have voted for conviction if all the relevant information had been presented at trial.
"There is little about this case which recommends our criminal justice system," Judge Callahan commented. "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."
Callahan also took a shot at Hulshof and the claims he'd made in his closing statement to Kezer's jury. After the Kezer conviction, Hulshof had become a six-term Republican congressman and then, in 2008, a failed candidate for governor.
"We now know none of what Mr. Hulshof said in that final summary was true," said Judge Callahan.
Hulshof, now a lawyer in private practice, declined to speak to ABC News, but said after Callahan's ruling that he "remain[s] confident in the jury's verdict." He has also said under oath that he never saw the exonerating documents that were not provided to the defense in the original trial.
Kezer Goes Free
Kezer won release from prison the day after Callahan's ruling.
Like some other states, Missouri does not guarantee compensation for the wrongfully convicted. Kezer left prison broke. Fortunately for Kezer, Bryan Cave lawyers Charles A. Weiss and Stephen R. Snodgrass agreed to sue Scott County, Ferrell and Schiwitz for damages.
"Because of the current immunity granted to prosecutors under the law, we, in effect, were precluded from bringing any claims against them," Weiss said during an interview for this story. "Other law enforcement personnel, such as sheriffs, police and investigators have only qualified immunity. If they were not acting in good faith or were acting recklessly, they are not cloaked with immunity."
Weiss said that with respect to the amount of money at stake, "Cases like that of Josh are worth up to and sometimes more than $10 million. However, a judgment for $10 million is worth nothing if it is uncollectible. Fortunately, Scott County had insurance which covered the claim. We settled for most of the amount of the insurance coverage."
The precise amount of the settlement, which Kezer received in August, is not public record.
Many wrongfully convicted men and women never receive a financial settlement, and those who do are not guaranteed a happy ending. Many cannot handle the sudden riches and end up destitute.
Kezer has channeled his energies into seeking justice in cases other than his own. When speaking to lay audiences, "my core message rests in the forgiveness I have in my heart," Kezer said.
The settlement also does not guarantee justice for Angela Lawless and her loved ones.
After an inmate is released because of actual innocence, police and prosecutors frequently fail to arrest the actual perpetrator of the crime. That means a criminal might still be at large to murder or rape or rob again. As of this writing -- almost two years after Kezer's release from prison and 18 years after Angela Lawless died --nobody has been charged with the murder of Angela Lawless.
Steve Weinberg is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.