Josh Kezer hugs Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter, whose efforts bolstered Kezer's claim of innocence. Kezer was exonerated on Feb. 17, 2009 and released a day later.2/19/09: Josh Kezer is freed after 14 years in prison2/17/09: JUDGE OVERTURNS JOSH KEZER'S 1994 MURDER CONVICTION12/08/08: Southeast Missourian Sunday Story about Kezer Hearing12/03/08: Wrongful conviction in killing? The review is on8/04/08: Judge Callahan grants Kezer evidentiary hearing in December 20086/10/08: Scott City detective denies taking KEY report from Mark AbbottPDF of report that Scott City Detective Bobby Wooten took 10 days after murderUpdate From SE Missourian 6/1/08
/>St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)
November 25, 2007 SundayCASE CLOSED - THEN REOPENED
Mischelle Lawless was found in her car in 1992, fatally shot. Joshua Kezer was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison. The officer who responded to the incident still has doubts.Click here to read this story on STLToday.com
By Benjamin Poston
Special to the Post-Dispatch
BENTON, MO — Reserve deputy Rick Walter was catching up on paperwork one night in the fall of 1992 when he was told to check out an abandoned car near Interstate 55.
He found a 1986 Buick Somerset at the top of an exit ramp about 1:30 a.m., just outside of this southeastern Missouri town that rises above the Mississippi River floodplain. Inside was the body of Angela Mischelle Lawless, a 19-year-old nursing student.
Lawless had been shot three times, once in the back of the head. But when Walter looked inside the car, he couldn't determine exactly how she had died.
"It was dark, and I didn't know if it was somebody just passed out," Walter said. "We opened the door and saw all the blood."
Fifteen years later, Walter, now the Scott County sheriff, sits in his windowless office and lets the Lawless case play out in his mind. There should be little reason to think about it now. Joshua Charles Kezer was convicted for the killing and sentenced to 60 years in prison. The case is closed.
But things just don't add up, Walter said.
Lawless clearly fought for her life against at least two attackers, Walter said, and yet, investigators identified and pursued only one suspect.
There were no witnesses to the killing. No physical evidence - DNA, fingerprints or murder weapon - linked Kezer to the scene. In fact, Kezer's friends and family say he wasn't even in the state the night Lawless was killed.
"People in the law enforcement community and regular people here have told me that they got the wrong guy in jail," Walter said.
So in early 2006, Walter did something almost unheard of in law enforcement: He reopened a murder case that was not only closed, but had already produced a conviction.
The sheriff and one of his detectives began reviewing hundreds of pages of investigative reports and witness statements. It would be a daunting task.
Witnesses were scattered. Fingerprints and blood can be reviewed and retested, but it was unclear what could be gleaned more than a decade later.
None of that mattered to the sheriff, a former construction worker who regularly wears a quarter-size pin that reads "My Son is a Marine." He already knew that if he ever got the chance, he would reopen the case.
"I wake up most mornings and wonder, 'Why am I sheriff?'" said Walter, who was elected in 2004. "I think this is why - to find the truth on this case."
FIRST TO THE SCENE
Everyone called her Mischelle. She was a cheerleader for the Kelly High School Hawks basketball team in Benton, and a farm girl at heart, having been active in the local FFA Organization.
In her younger years, she was a Girl Scout who volunteered as a candy-striper at area hospitals, so it was only natural that Lawless would pursue a nursing degree at Southeast Missouri State University.
"That's what she always wanted to do," her brother Jason said.
In many ways, Lawless was a bundle of contradictions. By her sophomore year in college, she was juggling boyfriends and partying a lot, friends said, yet she remained a regular at the Baptist Student Union.
Though she weighed just 95 pounds, Lawless wasn't afraid to stand up for herself. She even tried karate, and earned a yellow belt. "She was 4-foot-11 and packed full of dynamite," Jason Lawless said. "She wasn't the type to back down from anything."
On Nov. 7, 1992, Lawless was cruising Malone Street in Sikeston. Later that night, she dropped by a boyfriend's house. But she had a curfew, so she left sometime before 1 a.m. to get home.
Lawless would get no farther than the Route 77 exit ramp off I-55 in Benton - less than a mile from her home. That's where Mark Thomas Abbott of Scott City, Mo., said he found her bleeding.
Currently serving a 20-year federal sentence for drug trafficking, Abbott, now 38, said he was driving home after a night of heavy drinking at a honky-tonk in Sikeston, when he stopped his truck to check the Buick. The car's headlights were still on, and the engine was idling.
Abbott told authorities he reached into the car, grabbed Lawless by the waist and felt blood. He said he heard gurgling and realized she was wounded.
"At first I thought she was drunk, but when I seen her head with her hair over it," Abbott said, "I knew something was viciously wrong with her."
Abbott drove to a nearby gas station to call police, but the pay phone wasn't working, he said. As he walked back to his truck, Abbott said, a white hatchback darted into the gas station.
He told police that he saw the driver's face for a few seconds in the darkened parking lot. The driver had a dark complexion, Abbott said, and may have been Latino.
Abbott then drove northwest on Route 77 to the Scott County sheriff's department. A jailer reported that Abbott had burst into the sheriff's office.
"You need to get someone down there," Abbott shouted, "because a girl has been shot!"
COPS GET A NAME
Lawless was found wearing a turquoise sweatshirt, unbuttoned jeans and blue socks covered with blades of grass. She had been struck on the top of the head twice. A blood trail from inside the car continued over the guardrail and about 100 feet down an embankment. She hadn't been raped.
Walter believes Lawless tried to escape whoever killed her, judging from the grass on her socks and the blood outside. She also clawed her attacker. Tissue and blood were found under her fingernails.
"There was definitely some type of struggle," Walter said. "If you look at the crime scene photos, she may have been put back in the car or she could have been carried back up the slope. One person couldn't have done all that."
The Missouri Highway Patrol and the Scott County sheriff's department interviewed Lawless' friends and family, co-workers, fellow students - anyone who might have information.
Every path led nowhere until February 1993, when three inmates at Cape Girardeau County Jail claimed that Kezer, an 18-year-old high school dropout from Kankakee, Ill., had told them that he had shot Lawless.
The inmates had hung out with Kezer the month before. They said that he was a Latin Kings gang member and that he had confessed to the murder in an apartment where they were getting drunk and high.
About a week after Kezer became a suspect, police interviewed Abbott for a fifth time. He repeated his earlier story, except that this time he didn't say the driver of the hatchback at the gas station might have been Latino. Instead, he picked Kezer, who is white, out of a photo lineup. Abbott would be the only witness to place Kezer near the crime scene.
"When I picked him out, they damn near jumped through the roof with joy," Abbott said. "Sheriff wanted that case bad - it was like they broke the case open."
By early April, Kezer was extradited from Illinois on an unrelated felony assault charge later dismissed for lack of evidence. While police were bringing Kezer to Missouri, Scott County Sheriff Bill Ferrell obtained warrants for first-degree murder and armed criminal action charges, which carried the possibility of the death penalty.
Investigators had not conducted a polygraph test, taken a blood sample, thoroughly questioned Kezer or checked his alibis, according to police records.
Don Windham, the lead investigator of the case for the Highway Patrol who brought Kezer back to Missouri, said he was unaware that Kezer would be charged for murder upon their return.
"I was livid," Windham said. "I wouldn't have arrested him at that point in the investigation. We weren't ready."
THE TRIAL BEGINS
Kezer's murder trial began June 13, 1994. Prosecutors presented a case built primarily from the testimony of the jailed informers and Abbott. The DNA from Lawless' fingernails was tested; it didn't match Kezer's.
Prosecutors also lacked a motive, or any proof that Kezer and Lawless had met - until the fourth day of the trial.
Chantelle Crider, a friend of Lawless', had been watching the court proceedings and came forward to testify that she recalled seeing Kezer arguing with Lawless at a Halloween party one week before the murder.
The next day, June 17, 1994, the jury deliberated for three and a half hours before returning a verdict. Kezer was convicted of second-degree murder and armed criminal action.
"No, I didn't do this," Kezer yelled in the courtroom. "I didn't kill her."
After the verdict, special prosecutor Kenny Hulshof acknowledged that getting the conviction hadn't been easy. "There was no physical evidence to link Josh Kezer to the crime scene," he said.
Kezer was sentenced on what would have been Lawless' 21st birthday - Aug. 2, 1994. Just before hearing his sentence, Kezer was allowed to speak.
"There was other people's blood at the scene of the crime," he said. "The DNA reflected that my blood was not at the scene. My fingerprints or my palm prints were not at the scene. ... I don't why the jury found me guilty."
After the trial, Walter was surprised the case was considered closed. "I kept waiting for them to charge someone else with the murder."
HELP FROM OTHERS
In 1996, Jane Williams of Columbia, Mo., visited the Jefferson City Correctional Center, also known as "the Walls." She was there for an evening worship with her church group when she saw Kezer for the first time.
He was the only inmate kneeling during the service.
Williams became riveted by Kezer's case and his claim of innocence, but she didn't know how to help. "I felt like I couldn't do anything," said Williams, 52, a retired social worker.
In May 2006, she wrote a case summary that made its way to the Missouri committee of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Charlie Weiss, a partner at Bryan Cave law firm in St. Louis, took the case pro bono in September 2006. About a month later, he discovered that Walter had reopened the case.
"How in the world did they convict (Kezer) with this evidence?" said Weiss, a former president of the Missouri Bar Association. "If there was ever reasonable doubt in a case, this was it."
In late June, the Innocence Project, based in New York City, offered to assist Weiss. The nonprofit organization, which has helped exonerate more than 200 people, is reviewing legal documents and helping with DNA testing.
The organization's staff believes there's compelling evidence to conclude that Kezer's conviction should be re-evaluated and thrown out, said Olga Akselrod, staff attorney.
"We normally don't have the amount of non-DNA evidence like what (Weiss) has amassed."
CHANGING HIS STORY
During Walter's investigation this spring, Detective Branden Caid was checking witness statements when he learned about an interview Abbott had given to police in 1997.
At the time, Abbott was awaiting transfer to federal prison, and he was seeking leniency. Abbott had proved to be a credible informer on cases involving methamphetamine manufacturing, said William J. Bohnert, a Cape Girardeau narcotics detective.
So, when Abbott announced that he had new information about the Lawless murder, Bohnert was ready to listen. Once again, Abbott described the night Lawless was killed. Only this time, he said he was there when she was shot.
The Post-Dispatch obtained a summary of the interview. The following is Abbott's description of that night:
Abbott said a male friend who was married was having an affair with Lawless. Shortly after midnight, the pair argued, and Lawless jumped in her Buick, heading north on I-55. According to Abbott, she was going to tell the friend's wife that Lawless was pregnant with her husband's child. (An autopsy showed she wasn't pregnant.)
Abbott and the friend followed Lawless in Abbott's Chevy S-10. They caught up with her at the Benton exit. Abbott's friend got out of the truck and rushed to her idling car, where the pair argued again.
Sitting in his truck, Abbott said, he heard gunshots.
The gunman fled on foot. Abbott ran to the car where he could see Lawless was bleeding. In shock, he said, he got in his truck to report the shooting.
Abbott said the friend had threatened to kill him if Abbott told anyone. The friend's name is being withheld because he has not been charged.
"I knew he was the star witness in that case, and now he's changing his story," Bohnert said. "Mark put himself at the scene, and he gave me a bunch of detailed information."
After getting the statement, Bohnert said, he contacted the Cape Girardeau prosecutor, who advised him to call Windham, who investigated the case for the Highway Patrol. According to Bohnert, Windham said they had gotten a conviction in the case and would not reopen it.
Windham said he recalled the conversation but "didn't take any stock in" Abbott's statement.
For Walter, discovering the Abbott interview was a turning point in the investigation, though he won't boast about its significance. "I thought, 'Maybe I'm on the right track here.'"
Walter said he believed the statement Abbott gave to Bohnert, except he doubted that Abbott was an innocent bystander. "The story makes sense other than him sitting in the car and reading Bible verses," Walter said sarcastically.
Abbott is being held at the Federal Correctional Institute in Oxford, Wis., and is eligible for release in 2015. In a phone interview, Abbott claimed the 1997 statement never took place.
"I can't understand why Bohnert would say something like that - it blows my mind that he would even make that up," Abbott said.
Bohnert said he had no reason to lie. "I know what the guy told me. He seemed convincing enough for me to talk to the prosecutor," he said.
Windham said he now had doubts about the integrity of the original investigation, adding that he and other investigators should have considered Abbott in a different light.
"One of the big rules of thumb is to eliminate the first person who found the victim ... and it sounds like we didn't eliminate him," said Windham, now a sergeant with the Highway Patrol's Division of Drug and Crime Control. "I'll feel bad if it comes out that Kezer is not involved in this thing."
REBUILDING A CASE
Attorneys at Bryan Cave plan to file a petition on behalf of Kezer that will ask the court to vacate his conviction based on new evidence:
- Crider, who said Kezer argued with Lawless one week before she was killed, now says she mistook Kezer for another man at the Halloween party. Lawless wrote about the man she met at the party in a diary passage. It wasn't Kezer.
- Another round of testing this year showed Kezer didn't match any DNA found at the scene.
- The sheriff's department discovered a November 1992 police interview in which Abbott identified a black man he knew from Sikeston as the driver of the white hatchback. The report was never given to Kezer's original defense team.
Walter said his investigation hadn't produced any evidence that Kezer killed Lawless. He declined to discuss whether others would be charged, but he said he would do all he could to make sure whoever killed Lawless was behind bars.
"I think Mischelle deserves justice, and I think her family does, too," he said.
Meanwhile, Walter keeps a faded mug shot of Kezer underneath the glass of his desk.
"People might say, 'Kezer is a nobody, and what does it matter, why would I even care?'" Walter said. "We owe him this - to find the truth, because he is somebody. If I don't stand up for these people, who will?"
ONE MAN WAITS
Kezer's request for parole was rejected in October, and he continues to serve his sentence at the state prison on No More Victims Road.
He wears a faded T-shirt, gray prison-issue pants and plain white sneakers. Now 32, his hair is prematurely gray; his skin is prison pale. He has muscular shoulders and biceps but is a little soft in the middle - a byproduct of watching TV as much as 10 hours a day.
Kezer said the justice system had failed him, but he also sees his conviction and imprisonment as part of God's complex plan.
"I had to decide the bigger purpose in life was God," he said. "That's why I didn't slit my wrists, but I instead dropped to my knees to pray."
Kezer earned his GED in prison, but he wonders how he will adjust if he is ever released. He has other doubts, too. Will anyone remember him? What will they think of him if they do?
"If you ask people who I am today, they will say I'm a murderer," Kezer said.
LOOKING BACK ...
- Albert Lowes, defense attorney for Joshua Kezer: Lowes said he regretted that he didn't have Kezer testify in his 1994 murder trial. "He would have been a good witness," said Lowes, now practicing law in Cape Girardeau, Mo. "This is the only case I defended where the wrong guy went to prison."
- David Rosener, defense attorney for Kezer: Prosecutors accused Rosener of threatening the jailhouse informers who had claimed that Kezer had confessed to the crime. Rosener said he should have brought an investigator with him when he interviewed the jailhouse informers, to observe the depositions he took. If he had done that, Rosener said, the investigator could have testified that the informers had recanted and had not been not threatened. "(Kezer) didn't get a fair trial, and I could have done a better job," said Rosener, now practicing law in Festus. "I was devastated by this case."
- Kenny Hulshof, special prosecutor at the Kezer trial: Hulshof, a Republican from Columbia, is serving a sixth term in Congress. He declined through a press secretary to comment for this story.
- Stan J. Murphy, circuit court judge who presided over the trial: He said that the verdict hadn't surprised him and that he supported the jury's decision. Murphy declined to comment on the new investigation into Angela Mischelle Lawless' murder. He retired in 2000.
- Bill Ferrell, former Scott County sheriff whose department investigated the Lawless killing: Ferrell said he had no reaction to the decision to reopen the case. "You need to talk to the Highway Patrol instead of me, because they are the ones that conducted the investigation." When Ferrell retired in October 2004, he said the Kezer conviction was a highlight of his 28-year tenure as sheriff, according to the Southeast Missourian newspaper. "We got a conviction almost entirely on circumstantial evidence," he said at the time. "I'm really proud of the effort that went into that case and brought it to a conclusion."
Since 1989, more than 30 of the 208 convictions in the United States that were overturned through DNA testing involved cases based on the testimony of snitches or jailhouse informers, according to the Innocence Project.
When investigators lack physical evidence or witnesses to the crime, they sometimes rely on other criminals to get the information they need, said Rod Uphoff, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.
Three jailhouse informers, all facing felony charges, claimed to authorities that Joshua Kezer had told them he had killed Angela Mischelle Lawless. Months before Kezer's trial, a fourth informer, this time Kezer's cellmate, said Kezer had confessed to the crime.
Although jailhouse informers can be valuable, relying on them to build a case is risky, Uphoff said. In Kezer's case, for example, two of the three informers recanted before trial - one of them later reversed his recantation. Kezer's cellmate at the Scott County Jail also recanted before the trial.
"Snitch witnesses right off the bat are questionable in any case," said Uphoff, who defended Terry Nichols in the Oklahoma City bombing trial. "They have a lot to gain by manufacturing evidence against somebody else, and it may be very difficult to tell if they are lying."
ABOUT THE STORY
Reporting for this article included interviews with police officers from multiple agencies, private investigators, attorneys, law professors, and relatives and friends of Angela Mischelle Lawless and Joshua Kezer, who was convicted in Lawless' killing.
Kezer was interviewed in prison. Mark Abbott, the only witness to say Kezer was near the crime scene, was interviewed by phone from federal prison.
The 1,200-page transcript from Kezer's 1994 trial also was reviewed, along with coverage of the trial by the Southeast Missourian newspaper, transcripts from police interviews and a variety of court records.
Lawless' parents - Esther and Marvin Lawless, now divorced - declined to be interviewed for this story.
Ben Poston was a reporting intern at the Post-Dispatch in the summer of 2006. He holds a master's degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and works as an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He can be reached at email@example.com