Joshua Kezer reunites Saturday with family and friends, such as former high school classmate Shana Dunlap-King, at Dexter Bar-B-Q in Cape Girardeau.
Before his arrest that brought him across state lines to Benton, Mo., Kezer, then 18, had been living in Kankakee, Ill., working at the Kmart there and staying with his father, who sold cars for a living.
"I remember the day I got arrested and how that really shook up everything in my life," Kezer said Saturday before a crowd of more than 75 people at Dexter Bar-B-Que in Cape Girardeau.
In February, a Cole County judge ruled Kezer was "actually innocent" of the murder that kept him incarcerated for nearly 16 years.
"Tragically, the real killer or killers remain at large," Cole County Circuit Judge Richard G. Callahan wrote in a 44-page ruling.
Joshua Kezer tells his story to friends and family Saturday at Dexter Bar-B-Q in Cape Girardeau.
"That verdict came down, and my whole world shattered instantly," Kezer said.
When Kezer first entered the Missouri Department of Corrections at the age of 19, he weighed 150 pounds and hadn't earned a GED or high school diploma.
The nightmares and stories about prison projected by movies and television turned out to be true, Kezer said.
Within the first few days of his incarceration, Kezer said he overheard other inmates making bets on how long he would survive in prison.
"I lived every day like I was going to get out the next. I read the word of God. I was on my knees," Kezer said.
"I had to resign myself to the fate that either God was going to give me a miracle or I was going to die."
Kezer's faith drew the attention of Jane Williams, a retired social worker in helping with the prison ministries program. Kezer had been in prison for several years when Williams saw him praying on the concrete floor of the chapel at Jefferson City Correctional Center.
That was when she learned that Kezer had steadfastly maintained his innocence of the murder that kept him behind bars.
"That began to haunt me," she said.
Eventually Kezer began to talk to Williams about his case, and she discovered the work of a local investigator named Jim Sullins who had begun looking into the murder in 1997.
Sullins had been working in Fruitland when he saw Kezer's mother, Joni, waiting tables at a diner in the area.
"When you looked at her, she looked like she lost her best friend in the world," Sullins said.
Sullins followed Joni Kezer to the kitchen and handed her a business card, telling her to call him if she wanted to talk to someone.
The next day, Sullins agreed to look into the murder. He began tracking down witnesses who had testified in the case and found conflicting stories and recanted testimony. He also couldn't find any evidence proving Kezer had been in Missouri the night of the murder, he said.
Sullins wrote a report based on his findings and submitted it to various politicians, with no results.
In 2006, Williams tracked him down and asked him if he would consider taking up the investigation again. Sullins told her he would agree to work on the case if Williams could find a lawyer interested in trying to get it back in the courts.
Two months later, Charles Weiss of the Bryan Cave Law Firm in St. Louis agreed to take the case pro bono.
Shortly after Weiss agreed to take Kezer's case, they learned newly elected Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter had reopened the investigation into the homicide, despite already having a conviction in the case.
Casey Rayfield of Cape Girardeau had been friends with Jason Lawless, brother of the victim, in high school. She said she attended Saturday's event both in support of Kezer's exoneration and in memory of Mischelle Lawless.
In addition to thanking the string of people involved in his exoneration, Kezer shared with the crowd his recent experiences in the 24 days he's been out of prison, including trying Thai food for the first time and spending eight hours picking out shoes.
236 S. Broadview St., Cape Girardeau, MO