Scott County sheriff says DNA, right person stepping forward could solve Lawless murder case

Friday, February 20, 2009
Scott County Detective Branden Caid began investigating the death of Mischelle Lawless when Sheriff Rick Walter reopened the investigation in 2006.

More than 16 years have passed since the murder of Angela Mischelle Lawless, a college student found slain in her car near Benton, Mo., but Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter says the crime is still solvable, thanks to DNA advances and the possibility of the right person stepping forward.

Walter reopened the homicide investigation in 2006, even though a man was already serving a 60-year sentence in a maximum-security prison for the murder.

Walter has said he didn't set out to prove Kezer's innocence. At first, he simply thought there were more people involved, but several months into the investigation, the case against Kezer began falling apart.

Kezer was released Wednesday from Jefferson City Correctional Center following an order from a Cole County judge who granted a motion acknowledging Kezer's wrongful conviction for the murder, saying that Lawless' killer or killers remain at large.

Though Walter has said he's happy for Kezer, 34, he still has an unsolved murder on his hands.

Sheriff Rick Walter hugs Joshua Kezer before Kezer left Jefferson City Correctional Center after being incarcerated 15 years Wednesday. Walter was responsible for reopening the murder investigation shortly after he took office in 2006.

"We've always had an unsolved murder in my opinion, and the judge pretty much confirmed it," Walter said.

Walter was one of the responding officers to the scene of Lawless' murder during the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 1992.

The 19-year-old nursing student was found shot to death in her car on the northbound exit ramp of Interstate 55 near Benton, having suffered blunt force trauma to the head and three gunshot wounds to the head, back and face with a .380-caliber semiautomatic handgun.

Her killer or killers may have left a cache of physical evidence behind, but forensic analysis from four labs -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1993, Reliagene, Marshall State University and the Missouri State Highway Patrol since 2005 -- have not positively identified a suspect in the case.

Last year, Judge Richard G. Callahan granted an order requesting that the highway patrol's crime lab perform DNA analysis on genetic material taken from under Lawless' fingernails, comparing it to samples from Kezer and five other subjects in the case for elimination purposes.

Those tests showed that the DNA was consistent with that of an ex-boyfriend of Lawless' who admitted to having had intercourse with her earlier in the night and in 1992 presented investigators with an alibi for the time of the murder.

The DNA match was fairly broad, matching three of a possible 16 genetic markers to Lawless' ex-boyfriend, meaning he couldn't be excluded as a contributor, according to the DNA report.

Walter said he doesn't feel confident in the strength of the match.

"It could be consistent with a lot of male donors," he said.

Scott County investigator Branden Caid, lead detective on the case, said the department hopes to get "touch DNA analysis" done on the clothing worn by Lawless, still in the evidence locker of the Scott County Sheriff's Department. Investigators can use the positioning of the victim's body when she was killed to narrow the focus of the scan for DNA material the killer left behind by identifying parts of her clothing they would have been likely to touch, Walter said.

"The answer to this whole mystery could be sitting right there in a couple of evidence bags," Caid said.

Walter said they have contacted independent labs to get a cost estimate on the analysis.

Getting an arrest in the case without a forensic link could be difficult but not impossible, Caid said.

"If the right person comes forward with information, it's always possible," Walter said.

There is a significant amount of circumstantial evidence in the case against more than one person, but a solid DNA match could help separate "fact from fiction," Caid said.


Video time line of the Kezer case

The investigation continues

Words from a free man

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