Sixteen Years Behind Bars
Kezer says he knows exactly how he survived prison, serving time for a crime he didn’t commit: with the help of God.
Story by ALICIA SWARTZ
published by permission
Josh Kezer gets carsick even on short rides out to dinner. The fork and knife set before him are comically huge after eating every meal for so long with a small plastic spork. The call of frogs along the MKT Trail seems absurdly loud.
But none of this really bothers him. His reactions to life these days are childlike.
After his release from prison just more than two months ago after serving nearly 16 years for a crime he didn’t commit, Kezer, 34, celebrates the mundane: a car ride, a plate of sliced fruit, going out to eat or holding a baby at church.
Kezer was convicted in 1994 of the murder of a Southeast Missouri State University student and sentenced to serve two consecutive 30-year terms. He was exonerated in February when a judge threw out the original verdict in light of new evidence.
Kezer considers his release only the second part of his salvation. He believes worshiping God, reading the Bible and prayer gave him the patience to endure the failures of the justice system and the deprivations of prison.
But it’s not Job he relates to most from the Bible; it’s Lazarus. According to the New Testament, Jesus stayed away from Lazarus for two days because he did not want to heal a sick man but instead raise a dead man.
“Jesus did not want anything less than actual innocence for me,” Kezer said. “He knew it would take time.”
He was 18 when he was arrested at his father’s home in Kankakee, Ill., a suspect in the November 1992 murder of Angela Mischelle Lawless in Scott County.
Kezer produced alibi witnesses and maintained his innocence, but it was not enough to convince a Ste. Genevieve County jury, for whom the murder was well-known. He was convicted of second-degree murder and armed criminal action; his sentence was handed down on Aug. 2, 1994 the victim’s birthday.
He was shocked by the verdict. “I didn’t know how that could happen,” Kezer said. “The first time I ever saw the victim was when her obituary was printed in the paper.”
He remembers the terror that followed his sentencing hearing when the reality sank in that he would be going to prison for 60 years. His next memory is of waking up with his aunt holding him in a room in the courthouse. He’d blacked out.
It was a fitting beginning to what felt to Kezer, looking back, like dying.
“I lost everything,” Kezer said.
His life at the time he was arrested isn’t something he brags about. He wasn’t in school. He’d been kicked out in ninth grade because the school found out he lived out of the district.
“The principal called me in and said I had two choices: I could quit, or he would kick me out,” Kezer said.
He wouldn’t quit because of the fear of his life falling apart, with “the possibility of living under a bridge.” A year later, he actually found himself standing underneath a bridge, making the wrong friends.
He became a member of the All Mighty Latin Kings gang. “It all started when that principal kicked me out of junior high,” Kezer said.
At the time of the murder, Kezer was living with his father and working at Kmart. “I was just trying to figure things out, working to make ends meet,” Kezer said.
He had beliefs about God but no spiritual life before he entered the Kankakee County Jail. If he hadn’t begun to listen to what he believes God was saying to him right from the beginning, Kezer fears what he might have become.
“It would have been easy to become something not good; everyone else was doing it,” he said. “I had the courage to not follow the crowd, which is a lot more difficult in prison than it could ever be out here.”
Prison was an unnatural, “animalistic world,” he said.
“Some people begin to call their cells ‘home,'” he said. “But it was never my home. Ever. It was only where I lived.”
His eyes darted toward the floor, and he sat up in his chair and clenched his fists as he talked about his incarceration. “Prison did everything it could to take God out of my heart, to drive me insane,” he said. “But I never lost the wildness in my heart that God intends to be there.”
Although he felt an immediate tugging at his heart from God, many things that he saw happen could have torn him away from his faith.
One of those things was the rape of prisoners by other inmates. When he talked about it, he closed his eyes and braced himself in his chair. “It happens,” he said. “It’s not making love. It’s bleeding, bruising, it’s beating. It’s making other men do despicable things. Making a man dress up like he’s a girl, making him wear makeup, humiliating him in front of everyone.”
“It’s monstrous. They have names: They call them ‘punk,’ ‘a boy.’ The person that owns them, ‘Daddy,'” Kezer said. “It’s twisted.”
The abuse of the word “Daddy” and the dishonoring of fatherhood it implied disturbed Kezer. “Society should care about this,” he said. “Just because a man is sent (to prison), doesn’t mean he deserves to be abused.”
He said he was never raped in prison, though there were attempts. Kezer was once beat up so badly by four other inmates, he had to be hospitalized for several weeks.
The warden at Jefferson City Correction Center declined a request for an interview about Kezer, citing Department of Corrections policy.
The beating was one of the ways other inmates tried to bring him down, he said. But he kept to himself and “spent time with God.” He was hesitant to make friends, reluctant to trust anyone but God.
So he spent a lot of time on his knees in the church chapel praying for deliverance. Inspiration was hard to come by, though ministers often visited Jefferson City Correctional Center, where he was transferred after his trial.
“I love it when preachers visit the prisons,” he said with a laugh. “When they are preaching the Gospel, they are preaching to the guilty. I always had to find another message of hope and victory.”
Salvation in prison
From day one, Kezer worked to prove his innocence and immediately began to prepare his case for appeal. His first appeal was denied.
In 1997, he began working with a private investigator. He brought four complaints to the Missouri Court of Appeals, including that his trial lawyer had been ineffective and that the prosecution “” Kenny Hulshof, the special prosecutor from the attorney general’s office “had violated the discovery orders.
The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision.
(Hulshof, former Ninth District congressman and candidate for governor in 2008, did not return phone calls requesting interviews. He has given only one interview about Kezer’s release, according to The Poston Report, and that was on Feb. 23 on the Mark Reardon show on KMOX 1120 NewsRadio.)
After five years of making his case and pleading his innocence, Kezer hit bottom. “No one wanted to listen, so I just stopped talking,” he said.
He felt helpless. But when he lost his will to fight the justice system, he gained more faith in God.
“The beautiful thing is how God brought me through: alive, healthy, sane, whole, at peace, and preserved and protected,” Kezer said.
He kept praying. Little did he know that someone on the outside, Jane Williams, was watching and praying for him, too.
Jane Williams is the wife of Scott Williams, the associate pastor of Christian Fellowship Church in Columbia. She is also the founder of Love INC, or Love in the Name of Christ, an organization that connects with people recently released from prison into the community.
“There were times during that five-year period I thought I was alone. I would talk to God and believe that he was going to do something to set this straight,” Kezer said. “He kind of showed me that even in those five years when I thought I was alone, I wasn’t. Jane was praying for me and loving me and supporting me.”
Williams said there are about 35 people who come into Columbia every month who are released on the streets with nothing. Love INC helps these people assimilate into society.
“If they don’t have this support, it can be just a revolving door,” she said. “People change in prison, and they need someone to help.”
Williams has written many devotionals and spends time in prisons passing out religious literature and praying with inmates. She recalls the first time she saw Kezer.
It was also the first time she had been to the prison in Jefferson City. She was in the chapel, passing out Bibles. A crowd of inmates was milling around and socializing. She remembers looking over and seeing a young man with a long ponytail off by himself, on his knees praying.
Williams asked the woman working in the chapel, “Who is that young kid with the long ponytail, praying by himself in the corner?”
The woman answered: “That’s Josh Kezer. He’s innocent.”
In November 1992, the body of 19-year- old Angela Mischelle Lawless was found in her idling car on an Interstate 55 exit ramp in Scott County. She had been shot three times, once in the back of the head.
The first to arrive at the scene was Scott County Reserve Deputy Rick Walter. The investigation into Lawless’ death revealed several suspects, Walter said. But it was the statements of three inmates at Cape Girardaeu County Jail that turned the focus to Josh Kezer.
The three inmates, who claimed to be friends of Kezer’s, said they saw him in an apartment where he confessed to killing Lawless. Kezer, 17 at the time of the homicide, was arrested in March 1993. He was tried in 1994.
Kenny Hulshof, special prosecutor for the state attorney general’s office, argued the state’s case.
The prosecution offered the following as evidence:
– A witness who claimed he saw Kezer near the murder scene and identified a car, thought to be Kezer’s,
– Three inmates who testified Kezer had confessed to the murder,
– A witness who testified she saw Kezer arguing with the victim at a Halloween party days before the murder,
– Evidence that Kezer owned the gun used in the murder, and
– Physical evidence of blood on Kezer’s jacket, suggesting he had been in the victim’s car.
Strong evidence that Kezer was not the killer was presented in his original trial, but it didn’t sway the jury, including:
– Testimony from an expert witness who testified he couldn’t determine that the substance found on Kezer’s jacket was blood but could be anything with oxidant in it, like vegetable oil.
– Witnesses who testified Kezer was 350 miles away in Kankakee, Ill., on the night of the murder.
– The only gun Kezer owned was a BB gun.
Other evidence came to light only after the conclusion of the trial. The host of the Halloween party, where Kezer allegedly argued with Lawless, came forward after Kezer was convicted to say the witness was mistaken. She identified the person who argued with Lawless as someone else.
In Cole County Circuit Judge Richard G. Callahan’s decision to release Kezer, he wrote that Hulshof misrepresented the evidence at trial:
“At the end of his closing, Mr. Hulshof summed up as follows: (Kenny Hulshof, original trial) You aren’t just 12 individuals, you represent those people and you represent the small community down the interstate, in Benton, Missouri, and those people are looking to you for justice, ladies and gentlemen. You are our only hope. We put him at the scene, we put a gun in his hand, we put the victim with him, we have got blood on his clothes. Ladies and gentlemen, based on all of this evidence, I urge you to find this defendant guilty of murder and armed criminal action. We now know that none of what Mr. Hulshof said in that final summary was true,” Callahan wrote.
Hulshof did not return phone calls requesting interviews. On Feb. 23, he did give an interview on the Mark Reardon show on KMOX 1120 NewsRadio, his only interview concerning the topic since Kezer’s release, according to The Poston Report.
Josh Kezer was exonerated through the work of one woman, and a number of men “” lawyers, investigators, a sheriff, a reporter and finally a judge. But he also sees the divine at work.
An astrologer would call it an alignment of the planets. When Josh Kezer looks back on the actions of people and the sequence of events that brought about his release from prison for a crime a judge ruled he didn’t commit, he sees God’s hand in the confluence.
But one person was especially important in Kezer regaining his life and that was Jane Williams, a Columbia social worker who first saw Kezer in the chapel at Jefferson City Correction Center. They began to write letters to each other five years later.
At first, Kezer didn’t want to talk to Williams about his case. He wanted a friend who shared his faith. He didn’t know it at the time, but she became an integral part of his release from prison.
“He wanted me to know that he wanted a relationship with me and didn’t expect anything from me; it was more about shared faith,” Williams said.
But friendship didn’t satisfy Williams. She felt Kezer was innocent, and she wanted to help him get out of prison. Gently, she pried from him information.
Eventually Kezer gave Williams all the files on the case, including reports from his original private investigator. When she’d read it all, she knew she had to do something. But she knew she couldn’t do it alone.
Williams contacted the New York Innocence Project in 2005. The organization is part of a nationwide effort to release wrongfully convicted inmates. Kezer was put on an extensive waiting list, and his name didn’t come up until 2007.
After telling family members he no longer had the case files, Kezer’s trial lawyer, Al Lowes, found the trial transcript and handed it over to Williams in May 2006. She then wrote a case overview and sent it to Boston attorney Ken Parsigian.
Parsigian felt that having a Missouri lawyer was vital, and with his help, Kezer’s case was presented to the American College of Trial Lawyers. Charles Weiss called Williams in September 2006 to ask if he and Stephen Snodgrass of Bryan Cave LLP and Affiliates of St. Louis could take the case.
Weiss made contact with the Scott County Sheriff’s Department. It turned out newly elected Sheriff Rick Walter had already reopened the case.
Walter had been at the 1992 murder scene. The case still bothered him when he became sheriff in 2005. Later the same year, he began looking through the original case files.
He officially reopened the case in January 2006.
“Initially I did not reopen this case to prove that Josh was innocent,” he said. “We thought there could be one more person involved, and we reopened it to find out who (it was).”
“The more I dug into the case and the more evidence I found, the case against Josh just fell apart,” he said.
“We are thankful that Rick Walter was able to provide us with most of the withheld exculpatory evidence that we used to free Josh,” Snodgrass said. “Challenging the conviction like he did was not popular at first, and he showed a lot of political courage when he reopened the investigation.”
In 2007 MU School of Journalism master’s student Ben Poston took on the case as his graduate project. He and a reporter from the Southeast Missourian, Bridget DiCosmo, brought Kezer’s case to the public’s attention.
As the new investigation proceeded, Kezer began to regain hope in the justice system for the first time in 12 years. Looking back, he sees divine intervention in what began to unfold.
“This was perfect timing in order to get what we got for me. There needed to be people in place,” he said.
As Kezer sees the divine order of events, Walter had to be the sheriff at the time. The two investigators who had a role in assembling the evidence “” some old and some new “” had to be willing and capable. The New York Innocence Project had a crucial role, too, in retesting and confirming previous DNA evidence found under the fingernails of the murder victim.
With Missouri lawyers Weiss and Snodgrass representing Kezer, he took the stand at his habeas corpus hearing. He was confident in his legal team, but Kezer also believes God fought for him that day.
His claims for habeas relief included “violations of due process by suppression of exculpatory evidence” and “actual innocence.”
The new evidence brought into the courtroom was later said in the decision to be “clear and convincing” that Kezer did not commit the murder. The defense presented the following:
* The witness, who saw Kezer near the scene, changed his story multiple times, including providing a statement saying the person whom he saw was either Mexican or biracial (possibly black) with a Mexican accent, but Kezer is white.
* The original description the witness gave of the car was a white four-door Ford with a chrome bumper. The car used in the trial to convict Kezer was a two-door white Plymouth Duster hatchback with louvers on the back window and no chrome bumper.
* Three of the four inmates who testified that Kezer confessed to them signed recantations of their original statements. In their written statements, all three inmates admitted lying about Kezer’s confession in the hope of having their sentences reduced. All four original statements against Kezer had “inconsistencies.”
* An officer in the original investigation indicated in her notes that one of the witnesses who placed Kezer at the scene was unreliable and a suspect himself.
In his 44-page decision exonerating Kezer, Circuit Court Judge Richard G. Callahan said that “the prosecutor endorsed the obvious lies.” The prosecutor was Kenny Hulshof, now a former U.S. congressman.
“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 wrote in his decision.
Hulshof did not return phone calls requesting interviews. On Feb. 23, he gave an interview on the Mark Reardon show on KMOX 1120 NewsRadio, his only interview concerning the topic since Kezer’s release, according to The Poston Report.
The court ordered Kezer’s release on Feb. 17, stating he demonstrated “actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence” that overturned the original judgment. “As such, confidence in his conviction and sentence are so undermined that they cannot stand and must be set aside,” Callahan wrote.
The delays were frustrating, but Williams now also sees something else at work. “God’s plan was to do something bigger than we thought possible,” Williams said.
Kezer was told to call his lawyer on Feb. 17. His eyes light up as he remembers the phone call to Snodgrass. “He told me I was going to be released,” Kezer said. He then talked to Weiss, who described some of Callahan’s decision.
“I’m going home! It was a shock to the system, a wonderful shock to the system, but a shock nonetheless,” he said.
Only 18 when he was locked up, Kezer now had to learn to live in a society that was nothing more than a vague idea.
“You go from doing 16 years in prison to instant freedom “” how do you really process that? I’m still processing that,” Kezer said.
The first thing he wanted to do was go out for a steak dinner. But there was something else he felt compelled to do and that was go thank the judge who helped free him. So Williams’ husband, Scott, drove him to Callahan’s office in the courthouse so he could shake Callahan’s hand.
The next stop was the Old Walls in Jefferson City, where Kezer spent 10 years of his life. “I felt the need to visit old ghosts,” he said. “And I had a desire to walk out of both prisons.”
He took with him old pieces of the wall.
He then went to Longhorn Steakhouse for a steak, steak soup, onion rings and Key Lime pie.
Kezer now lives with the Williamses in Columbia. “It’s only temporary until I can get on my feet,” he said.
Missouri state law prohibits Kezer from obtaining any kind of monetary compensation for the nearly 16 years he was imprisoned. For now, he’s earning a living by talking about his experience. But for the most part, he is dependent on the kindness of other people.
“Everything I have right now is because of other people,” he said. “In that aspect I am blessed.”
“I go to churches, campuses. I love talking to young people,” he said. Kezer also has a great interest in addressing law enforcement, the legal community, the U.S. Congress and the Missouri legislature.
Kezer tries not to be angry. Only when he talks about the case built against him by the prosecutor, Hulshof, is there any evidence of bitterness. He purses his lips. He has to stop and take deep breaths when talk turns to the “witnesses” who helped convict him, especially those he thought were friends.
But he believes he has to forgive and he’s taken to heart advice he heard during a speech at the Innocence Network Conference in Houston in March. The speakers were Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton, who wrote a book about their experience of forgiveness. Thompson-Cannino misidentified Cotton as the man who raped her in 1984. He served 11 years for the crime. Now, the pair travel and speak all over the U.S. about the importance of forgiveness in healing.
“Until you forgive and move on, you will always be a victim,” Thompson-Cannino said. “Only after can you be a survivor.”
Looking back at his own survival, Kezer said, God is “all in the midst of it.”
“I kind of hear him in his fatherly voice saying, “˜When I told you I wanted all this for you, did you think I did not know you were going to go through all these other things?'” Kezer said.
Kezer plans to get involved with the Innocence Project locally and help other inmates in similar situations. He wants to be the voice of those unheard and provide them proof that God is listening.
To contact Josh Kezer for public speaking engagements, or to send him personal notes, you can reach him at joshkezer at gmail dot com.
Judge Richard G. Callahan ordered Josh Kezer’s release in the habeas corpus proceeding on two legal grounds: that Kezer’s constitutional right to a fair trial had been violated by the state’s withholding of exculpatory evidence and that he had proven he was “actually innocent.”
The prosecution relied primarily on three pieces of evidence to convict Kezer: Mark Abbott’s identification of Kezer as somone he saw in a white car near the murder scene; testimony of three jailhouse witnesses that Kezer confessed to murdering Mischelle Lawless; and testimony of one of the victim’s friends who said she saw Kezer argue with Lawless at a Halloween party the week before her murder. New evidence discovered after his conviction helped Kezer negate all of this evidence. Some of the new evidence had actually been withheld by law enforcement and/or the prosecution, said attorney Stephen Snodgrass.
The following three main pieces of evidence were withheld in the 1994 trial and proved a constitutional violation to a fair trial.
– The Wooten Report: “A written report by Scott City Police Lt. Bobby Wooten of a Nov. 18, 1992, interview he conducted with Mark Abbott in which Abbott stated unequivocally that the person he saw in the white car near the murder scene was Ray Ring, a local mixed-race teenager he said he had just met at a party in Sikeston.” This directly contradicts Abbott’s identification of Kezer and the car he was supposedly driving.
– Schiwitz’s Investigation Notebooks: Notebooks of Scott County Deputy Brenda Schiwitz listed Mark Abbott and his twin brother as suspects as of Nov. 11, 1992. In her formal report, Schiwitz wrote that Abbott described the man as not “Negro,” but dark complected and possibly Hispanic. At trial, Schiwitz said Abbott was never a suspect. She also testified in a pretrial deposition that she disposed of her notes after transcribing them. They were still in the Sheriff’s Department in 2008.
– Mangus’ Handwritten Statement: One of the four “jail snitches” provided a pretrial written statement to the Scott County Sheriff’s Office saying Kezer confessed to the murder. He later gave a statement to the trial defense lawyers recanting but reverted to his old statement at trial, saying the recantation was coerced. However, unbeknownst to the defense, Mangus had given another pretrial statement to the Scott County Prosecutor’s Office saying Kezer never confessed. He and another inmate concocted a story that Kezer confessed to get a reduced sentence.
Kezer’s trial defense counsel testified they were never provided this evidence.
Kezer was able to establish actual innocence by discrediting the prosecution’s main evidence and providing new evidence.
The original prosecution provided the following evidence, which Kezer’s lawyers were able to prove was misconstrued.
– Impeaching Abbott’s identification of Kezer: Abbott made claims he was not able to see the driver but heard a Mexican accent. Kezer did not appear to be Hispanic or have a Mexican accent.
– Impeaching jail inmates’ testimony: Inmates admitting they lied about the confession to get lesser sentences, and the testimony of Jeff Rogers who said, “Scott County Sheriff intimidated him into signing a false statement that Josh Kezer confessed to him.”
– Other suspects: One witness testified Kevin Williams told her he and Abbott were present when Abbott killed Lawless. Three other witnesses testified that Abbott stated or implied that he killed Lawless. A Cape Girardeau detective testified that Abbott told him that he and Williams were present when Lawless was killed and Williams killed her.
New evidence was brought into the hearing including the following:
– The person who testified that Kezer argued with Lawless at a Halloween party said she had been mistaken.
– The hosts of the same party said they knew everyone at the party, and Kezer was not there.
– New tests of the substance found on Kezer’s jackets “were negative for the presence of human blood.”
– The DNA under Lawless’ fingernails was consistent with the profile of one of her boyfriends, Leon Lamb.
“The system (is) finally righting itself with respect to Josh Kezer,” Callahan wrote in his decision. “Tragically for the family of Mischelle Lawless, the real killer or killers remain at large.”
He calls anyone he wants, anytime he wants with his cell phone, a device that was still uncommon in 1993 when he was wrongly charged with murdering a college student in southeast Missouri.
He was released on Feb. 18, 2009 from Jefferson City Correctional Center where he was serving a 60-year sentence for a murder that a Cole County judge ruled he did not commit.
Kezer can slice a steak with a knife and eat it with a fork. For nearly 16 years he subsisted on bland prison food and was allowed only a plastic spork.
He shaves his face with foamy cream, instead of a punishing “dry shave.”
Now 34, Kezer rides in a car, cranks up a Red Hot Chili Peppers tune, and lets the cold Missouri air rush over his face.
Joshua Charles Kezer is a free man.
A heavy box
I came to the Missouri School of Journalism in August 2005, a graduate student seeking to become a better writer and learn database, mapping and statistical analysis skills.
In fall 2006, I enrolled in an intermediate writing course taught by MU journalism professor Steve Weinberg. During the first week of class, he asked if anyone would be interested in researching a potential wrongful conviction case.
I accepted his challenge.
Steve handed me a heavy box that contained a 1,200-page trial transcript, hundreds of pages of additional court documents and a case summary written by Columbia resident Jane Williams, who had befriended Kezer in prison.
Williams’ summary laid out the key facts of the case:
- Angela Mischelle Lawless, a 19-year-old Southeast Missouri State University nursing student, was found shot to death in a car on an I-55 exit ramp in November 1992 in Scott County, Mo., just south of Cape Girardeau County.
- Kezer was later convicted of her murder, despite a lack of physical evidence to connect him to the crime. No DNA evidence, palm prints or fingerprints linked him. There were no eyewitnesses to the crime. The only witness to put Kezer near the scene changed his statement to police at least five times before testifying at trial. Kezer’s alibi witnesses said he was 350 miles away in Kankakee, Ill., on the night of the murder.
- Three jailhouse snitches from the Cape Girardeau County Jail claimed Kezer confessed to the murder about two months after the crime. They all received lighter sentences for their cooperation. Two of the three snitches later recanted, though one recanted his recantation and testified at trial against Kezer. A fourth snitch later said Kezer confessed, though he also recanted.
It makes your head spin, I know.
In the days after I took the documents home, I was intimidated by the case. It sat on my bedroom floor on Hinkson Avenue in Columbia for several weeks before I even dared to open it.
I’m not sure exactly what I feared.
I remember thinking I might spend months researching, interviewing and writing and not have anything to show for it. Mainly I feared the unknown. I doubted my abilities as a journalist. It took me a month just to get through the first 200 pages of jury selection.
With encouragement fromWeinberg; Brant Houston, the former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors; and MU professor David Herzog, I decided in November 2006 to research the case for my master’s degree project. I hoped to one day see my story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where I had worked as a news intern.
I reviewed the trial transcript for several weeks over the Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. I took detailed notes and diagrammed the case using a science fair board and note cards just to keep all the names straight. More than two years later, the diagram still hangs above the desk in my Milwaukee apartment.
About the same time I begin digging into the case file, attorneys at Bryan Cave law firm in St. Louis also read Williams’ case summary. They eventually became convinced of Kezer’s innocence and took his case for free. Charlie Weiss, former president of the Missouri Bar Association, worked with Steve Snodgrass and Jim Wyrsch for more than two years on the case, tirelessly gathering depositions from witnesses scattered around the country.
Unbeknownst to me when I first read through the file, Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter made a rare move and reopened the Mischelle Lawless murder case in early 2006. Working as a part-time reserve deputy in 1992, Walter was the first law enforcement officer to discover Lawless’ body. For years, the case haunted him ““ he had long thought more than one person was responsible for her murder, and he questioned the integrity of the original investigation.
The real work begins
By January 2007, I began talking to sources. I interviewed Kezer in the Jefferson City prison five times that year. I also interviewed his original defense attorneys, his new lawyers, his appellate attorney and Sheriff Walter.
I interviewed Kezer’s family and Lawless’ brother because her parents declined interview requests. I made scores of phone calls to old and new witnesses, jurors, the trial judge, investigators on the original case, and a private investigator.
Many weekends that semester, I drove to locations around the state for interviews. I traveled to Cape Girardeau, Benton, Sikeston, Miner, Festus, Scott City, Commerce, Jefferson City and also Kankakee, Ill., where Kezer’s father lived.
I gathered many telling details along the way that are recorded in my 140-page master’s project on file at the MU journalism library.
Through my reporting, I knew I had a compelling story to tell. It was just a matter of condensing it all into a coherent narrative, which proved daunting.
After defending my project and graduating in May 2007, I was hired as a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I was pleased to have a full-time job, but didn’t want to give up on the Kezer story.
During the summer and fall, I worked evenings and weekends with editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who remained interested in running my story as a freelance writer. With the help of projects editor Jean Buchanan and enterprise editor Todd Stone, my 3,500-word story was published on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Nov. 25, 2007.
The article broke the news that Sheriff Walter had reopened the case and that Kezer had attorneys working on his behalf. It also highlighted new witnesses and evidence not presented at the original trial. The story generated a lot of buzz on a case that hadn’t received any attention in about 14 years.
A year later
In April 2008, Kezer’s attorneys filed their motion to overturn Kezer’s conviction in Cole County where Kezer was incarcerated at the Jefferson City Correctional Center on No More Victims Road. Four months later, Cole County Judge Richard Callahan granted Kezer an evidentiary hearing, scheduled for December 2008.
I attended the hearing in Jefferson City on Dec. 2-3. All the sources I had interviewed the previous year were gathered together in one room. The hearing went well for Kezer and his attorneys.
More than two months later, on Feb. 17, 2009, Joshua Charles Kezer was exonerated. He was released from prison the next day after almost 16 years behind bars.
Judge Callahan ruled that Kezer’s case met the legal standard of actual innocence, meaning that no reasonable juror would convict him in light of newly discovered evidence.
“There is little about this case which recommends our criminal justice system,” Callahan wrote in his ruling. “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.”
The ruling was vindication for Kezer, who long maintained his innocence to anyone who would listen.
Judge Callahan wrote that the attorney general’s special prosecutor Kenny Hulshof withheld multiple pieces of exculpatory evidence, misstated evidence in his closing arguments and endorsed the “obvious lies” of the jailhouse snitches.
Hulshof served six terms as a U.S. Congressman representing Missouri’s 9th District before unsuccessfully running for governor in fall 2008. He was also a finalist for University of Missouri System President in 2007. Hulshof has declined repeated interview requests, though I look forward to interviewing him one day.
The judge said Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter was the “only bright note” in the case.
“Largely through his efforts, along with those of Petitioner’s counsel, is the system finally righting itself with respect to Josh Kezer,” Callahan wrote.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Walter continues to investigate the murder of Lawless to find those responsible.
A new beginning
When I first spoke to Kezer after his exoneration, he had only a few moments before he had to go back to his cell.
“This is proof God is real,” he said. “This is proof. This is wonderful.”
I found out the next morning that Kezer would be released. I drove eight hours from Wisconsin to Missouri and was able to make it there late that night.
I spent the next two days with him in Columbia, where he lives now, collecting audio, video and photos for a future story.
His first two car trips resulted in carsickness and a nauseated dash to the bathroom. He hadn’t traveled in a car in 16 years.
Still, Kezer adjusted quickly to new experiences shopping for clothes at Walmart, devouring French toast at Ernie’s Cafe and sizzling fajitas at Chevy’s Fresh Mex restaurant.
As he described it, he was like a newborn baby seeing the world for the first time with fresh eyes.
He seemed grateful for each moment of freedom. He thanked everyone who had believed in his innocence and even strangers who stopped for a minute to listen to his story.
I’ve not seen anyone more at peace than Josh Kezer was during his first days of freedom. His shoulders relaxed. He laughed easy and smiled big.
His new life is off to a promising start. He has a place to live with a friend in Columbia and has lined up a painting job to earn money.
He is eager to tell his story.
On Feb. 28, Kezer spoke to a group of high school athletes in St. Louis. He cautioned them not to make the same bad choices he did as a teenager like dropping out of school, doing drugs and joining a gang.
“If I’d just done some things differently, I wouldn’t have been such an easy target,” Kezer told them. “Decisions you’re making right now can affect the rest of your life.”
Looking back at that first e-mail I received from Kezer, I notice he finished with these words:
“Just remember that Jesus is King and in complete control. He’s the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Trust me, as long you’re with the Author, you’ll love the ending.”
Ben Poston earned a master’s degree in 2007 from the Missouri School of Journalism and works as an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He can be reached at bposton3 at gmail dot com.
See the Judge’s Ruling here.