JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) – A Cole County judge overturned a man’s murder conviction – after he spent 14 years in prison – and found that prosecutor Kenny Hulshof withheld evidence in the case. Hulshof is a former six-term congressman and Republican gubernatorial nominee who lost to Jay Nixon last year.
“There is little about this case which recommends our criminal justice system,” Judge Richard Callahan wrote. “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.”
Joshua Charles Kezer, 34, spent 14 years in prison after being convicted of the 1992 shooting death of Angela Lawless, a 19-year-old college student in southeast Missouri. Kezer was convicted though there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, no eyewitnesses, and friends and family placed Kezer 350 miles away on the night of the murder.
Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter reopened the case in 2006 and Kezer was granted an evidentiary hearing in December 2008. The only prosecution witness to place Kezer near the scene had recanted. The defense also argued that prosecutors withheld several key pieces of evidence from Kezer’s attorneys.
On Tuesday, Judge Richard Callahan found that no reasonable juror would convict Kezer in light of the newly discovered facts. He ordered Kezer to be released within 10 days unless Scott County Prosecutor Paul Boyd decides to retry him.
Judge Callahan blasted Hulshof, finding that he should have made several pieces of evidence available to the defense, including a police report in which Mark Abbott named Ray Ring, not Kezer, as the driver of a white car he saw near the murder scene; and a notebook kept by Scott County deputy Brenda Schiwitz that showed Abbott was a suspect early in the investigation, even though Schiwitz testified that Abbott was never a suspect and that she had destroyed her notes. Schiwitz later testified in a 2008 deposition that she gave the notes to Hulshof and his investigator.
During the December evidentiary hearing, defense attorneys also presented witness testimony that Callahan said undermined the case against Kezer, including: Chantelle Crider, who originally said she saw Kezer argue with the victim at a Halloween party a week before the murder, now says she was mistaken; Cape Girardeau Det. William Bohnert described a statement given to him by Abbott, in which Abbott told him in 1997 that he saw one of his married friends shoot Lawless because of an affair he was having with her (Abbott is serving a 20-year sentence in federal prison for methamphetamine trafficking); and two southeast Missouri residents said they heard Abbott and his friend boast about killing Lawless before Kezer’s trial concluded.
But Hulshof said he stands behind the conviction.
“The jury came to a unanimous decision that Mr. Kezer’s alibi witnesses were not credible and that the state had proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hulshof said in a statement. “My biggest regret is that the family of Mischelle Lawless is experiencing a travesty of justice.”
Hulshof is an attorney with Polsinelli Shughart in Kansas City. It is unclear whether Boyd will continue with the criminal case against Kezer.