Joshua Charles Kezer spent more than 14 years in prison for a murder that he insisted he didn't commit.
On Tuesday, Kezer was vindicated.
A Cole County judge overturned Kezer's conviction for second-degree murder and armed criminal action and affirmed Kezer's claim of actual innocence. The judge also concluded that the original prosecutor in the case, Kenny Hulshof, the former six-term Missouri congressman, withheld evidence.
"This is proof that God is real," Kezer said from prison. "This is proof. This is wonderful."
Kezer has been serving a 60-year sentence at the Jefferson City Correctional Center for the 1992 killing of Angela Mischelle Lawless, a 19-year-old college student. Lawless was found shot to death in her car just off Interstate 55 near Benton, Mo.
No physical evidence — DNA, fingerprints or murder weapon — linked Kezer to the crime. There were no eyewitnesses. Friends and family said Kezer was 350 miles away in Kankakee, Ill., on the night of the murder.
In a rare move by law enforcement, Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter reopened the closed murder case in 2006. The Post-Dispatch published a report in November 2007 about the Kezer case and Walter's suspicions that Lawless' killer was still at large. Kezer was granted an evidentiary hearing in December.
By then, the only prosecution witness to place Kezer near the murder scene had recanted. The defense also argued that prosecutors in the original case didn't provide several pieces of exculpatory evidence to Kezer's attorneys.
In ruling that Kezer's case meets the legal standard of actual innocence, Judge Richard Callahan concluded that no reasonable juror would convict the defendant in light of newly discovered facts. The judge ordered Kezer to be released from Jefferson City Correctional Center within 10 days unless Scott County Prosecutor Paul Boyd decides to retry him.
For now, Boyd's plans remain unclear. He did not return calls seeking comment.
"I can't imagine they could retry him on this case," said Charlie Weiss, one of the attorneys from the St. Louis law firm Bryan Cave who represented Kezer. "They have nothing. They have no physical evidence whatsoever, and the snitches have no credibility.
Kezer, now 34, is the 17th inmate to be exonerated in Missouri since 1982, according to the Midwestern Innocence Project, based in Kansas City.
"I've been laughing and crying since I heard the news," Kezer's mother, Joni Kezer said. "God is great. That's all we had to gone on. We never lost hope because we always had faith."
Lawless' brother, Jason, said that he was sickened to know that an innocent man was convicted for the murder of his little sister. "Mostly I just feel sorry for him, I really do," said Jason Lawless of Scott City. "He sat in there all this time for something he didn't do, which is horrible for him."
During the December hearing, defense attorneys presented witness testimony that the judge said undermined the case against Kezer:
— Chantelle Crider, who originally said she saw Kezer argue with the victim at a Halloween party one week before the murder, now says she was mistaken.
— Cape Girardeau Detective William Bohnert described a statement given to him by Mark Abbott, the only person to claim Kezer was near the crime scene. According to Bohnert, 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.
— Two southeast Missouri residents — Cathy Fowler and Ron Burton — said they heard Abbott and his friend boast about killing Lawless after the trial concluded in 1994.
In his 44-page ruling, the judge said Kezer was betrayed by almost every level of the judicial process.
"There is little about this case which recommends our criminal justice system," 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."
Hulshof, now an attorney at Polsinelli Shughart law firm in Kansas City, said in a statement Tuesday that he stands by Kezer's 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. "My biggest regret is that the family of Mischelle Lawless is experiencing a travesty of justice."
Callahan criticized Hulshof, who prosecuted the case for the attorney general's office, over issues of evidence. The judge said several pieces of evidence should have been made available to Kezer's original trial attorneys, including:
— A police report in which Mark Abbott named Ray Ring, not Joshua Kezer, as the driver of a white car he saw near the murder scene. A Scott County sheriff's detective found this report paper-clipped to the back of the original investigation file in 2007.
— A notebook kept by Scott County deputy Brenda Schiwitz was found by Walter during his investigation. The notebook showed that Mark Abbott had been considered a suspect early on, though Schiwitz testified at trial that Abbott was never a suspect and that she had destroyed her notes. Schiwitz gave a deposition in 2008 that she gave her notes to Hulshof and his investigator. Hulshof, the Republican nominee for governor who lost to Jay Nixon last year, did not address the judge's conclusion that evidence was withheld from the defense. He declined to be interviewed.
Callahan said there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different if any of the withheld evidence had been disclosed to Kezer's defense. Sheriff Walter was the "only bright note" in the case, the judge added.
"Largely through (Walter's) efforts, along with those of petitioner's counsel, is the system finally righting itself with respect to Josh Kezer," Callahan wrote.
Contacted Tuesday, Walter said he believes the wrong man was put behind bars. "We never set out to free Josh," the sheriff said. "We set out to find out who the other killers were."
And that's why, Walter said, the Lawless murder case remains open.