Editorial

The case for Joshua Kezer

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Joshua Kezer is a free man. He was convicted in June 1994 of killing a 19-year-old Benton woman in 1992. Since then Kezer has been in prison, where he has always maintained his innocence. On Tuesday a Cole County circuit judge ruled that Kezer's prosecution was badly botched and that he was innocent of all charges. On Wednesday Kezer walked out of the state prison in Jefferson City, embraced his mother and started the rest of his life.

Kezer, from Kankakee, Ill., was 18 years old when he was charged in 1993 with the shooting of Angela Mischelle Lawless. He never thought he would be convicted. There was no physical evidence. There was no weapon. And he had an alibi. But three witnesses said Kezer admitted killing Lawless, and a fourth later put Kezer near the crime scene.

Three individuals are largely responsible for Kezer's change in fortune. One was a social worker. Another was a new sheriff. The third was a tenacious lawyer.

For nearly 12 years, Kezer's claims that he was the wrong man fell on mostly deaf ears. One person who listened, however, was a social worker who was struck by the fact that, even after his conviction, Kezer never changed his story. Jane Williams wrote a summary of the case.

Rick Walter had been one of the responding officers back in 1992. He always felt something wasn't right about the case. When he was elected sheriff of Scott County, he decided to see if he could remove his doubts. In January 2006 he reopened the investigation.

Charles Weiss, a lawyer at the prestigious Bryon Cave law firm in St. Louis heard about the Kezer case at a meeting of the American College of Trial Lawyers. He decided to help Kezer, without charge, after reading Williams' case summary.

It wasn't easy pulling the threads together, but Sheriff Walter and Weiss kept plugging away. What they found was something of a legal nightmare: witnesses who changed their stories, questionable evidence, misleading information presented to jurors.

After months of carefully evaluating the evidence, Weiss last April filed a 60-page brief in Cole County, where Kezer was in prison, maintaining that he had been wrongfully convicted. Judge Richard Callahan presided over a hearing in December.

Overturning a jury decision is not a matter to be taken lightly. After reviewing the case and hearing testimony, Judge Callahan took two months to issue his decision. His opinion said Kezer was innocent and ordered him released from prison.

Kezer says he is still trying to process this new turn in his life. In answer to a question from Sheriff Walter, Kezer said he will likely "live up to some people's expectations and disappoint others."

Jane Williams, Rick Walter and Charles Weiss are happy Kezer will have an opportunity to try -- as a free man -- to make the best of the rest of his life.

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