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Authorities exhume Lawless' body to collect DNA

Thursday, October 17, 2013

(Photo)
1992 murder victim Angela Mischelle Lawless
Nearly 21 years after her death, authorities exhumed the body of Angela Mischelle Lawless on Tuesday morning in an effort to collect DNA evidence that could help them identify her killer.

Lawless was found dead in her car Nov. 8, 1992, at the northbound Highway 77 exit ramp off Interstate 55 in Benton, Mo.

She had been shot three times and struck in the head with a heavy object.

Josh Kezer, a teenager from Kankakee, Ill., spent 16 years in prison after jailhouse informants claimed he had killed the 19-year-old nursing student.

No physical evidence connected him to the case, and he was exonerated in 2009, three years after Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter reopened the case, believing the wrong person had been convicted.

Walter said when he reopened the case, he noticed the autopsy report mentioned some wounds, but no evidence to go with them.

"There was technology to do all this back then, but for some reason, it wasn't done," he said Wednesday night.

Walter said he knew investigators needed to exhume the body and swab the wounds, some of which appeared to have been scratches caused by fingernails.

Walter went to Lawless' family to get their blessing before pursuing a court order to exhume the body -- a process that took several months.

The sheriff said he wasn't sure the DNA would be intact after more than two decades, but he decided to try.

"The chances after 20 years of DNA even being gathered from the body all depends on how a body was prepared for burial," he said.

Washing the body with soap would have caused the DNA to deteriorate, but rinsing would leave it intact, Walter said.

"That's a variable that can affect whether DNA can be extracted," he said.

Walter said the body was in good condition.

"Forty-five samples were taken from various parts of her body," Walter said.

Investigators hope some of those samples contain skin cells belonging to the killer, but they likely will not know the result of their efforts for several months, he said.

"My hope and goal is to get DNA evidence to lead us to a suspect," Walter said.

Authorities began digging at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Walter said. By 5 p.m., the investigation was complete, and Lawless' body was reburied.

Walter said he, Scott County coroner Scott Amick and a scientist from Independent Forensic Services, based in the Netherlands, were present during the process.

On Wednesday night, Kezer said he was shocked when someone called him earlier in the day to tell him Lawless' body had been exhumed.

"You have to understand: This is an extremely old wound for the family and for me," he said. "When this happened to her, you know, it created a wound in a lot of people, and every time something like this comes up and then nothing happens as a result, it's like sticking a hot iron poker into the wound."

Kezer said exhuming the body could create false hope for the Lawless family if it doesn't lead to charges.

"If this is creating this kind of emotion in me, imagine what it's creating in her family," he said. "Naturally, it's opened a door of hope in her family, because they're thinking, 'The sheriff's not going to do this, and the scientists are not going to do this unless they're sure they've got something.' ... They need to honor that hope."

Kezer said he believes enough evidence exists to identify the killer, but no one has been charged.

"What I want to see come out of it is somebody getting the guts and the courage to charge the people who killed her," he said. "There is enough evidence ... in my belief to charge a couple of suspects. If they need more evidence in order to do that, to fill the need, do that."

Kezer was arrested after several jailhouse informants offered statements against him in exchange for leniency.

In overturning Kezer's conviction, Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan had sharp words for the prosecutors and others involved in the case.

"There is little about this case which recommends our criminal justice system," Callahan wrote in 2009. "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."

Three of the four informants who testified in the case changed their stories, and Callahan said then-Scott County prosecuting attorney Kenny Hulshof failed to turn over several key pieces of evidence to Kezer's lawyers.

Among that evidence was an interview with Scott City police in which Mark Abbott -- the only witness who could place Kezer in Missouri on the night of the killing -- named the person he claimed to have seen near the crime scene as someone other than Kezer.

In a letter to Callahan in May 2008, Abbott said he believed he was mistaken when he identified Kezer from a lineup as the man he saw.

Kezer said it is long past time to close the case.

"I feel like this has gone on long enough. The Lawless family, my family, we deserve some closure on this," he said. "This needs to be over, and quite frankly, her family and I deserve that. She deserves that. She's at peace right now, I believe, in heaven, but still ... she deserves that. I didn't even know the girl, and I understand that."

epriddy@semissourian.com

388-3642

skluesner@semissourian.com

388-3648

Pertinent address:

Highway 77 and I-55, Benton, Mo.


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Very sad to put that family through this to satisfy the current sheriff's desire to discredit the former the sheriff. The right guy was in jail to begin with. This case will never be over now. Very sad.

-- Posted by bbqman on Wed, Oct 16, 2013, at 10:05 PM

bbqman, if the right guy was in jail to begin with, then why did he go free and receive a settlement for wrongful imprisonment??? The DNA tests should show some answers, and I think the family would appreciate knowing the truth. Furthermore, if your suspicion is that the right person was in jail to begin with, then the DNA tests will give the evidence needed to put him back there. Either way, the family will get concrete answers. I would certainly want that if it were my loved one.

-- Posted by wuzthinking on Wed, Oct 16, 2013, at 10:37 PM

BBQ man, don't act like you have sympathy for the family and then say ignorant political comments like you did. Unless you were part of the cover up and you're going to confess, just keep your opinions to yourself.

-- Posted by WilliamS on Wed, Oct 16, 2013, at 11:19 PM

I believe that God allowed the new sherriff with the truth that Josh did not do this. By exhuming the body I hope it provides investigators the evidence they need to bring the real killer to justice. I hope that the lawless family and josh kezer get the closure they so well deserve from this exhumation. My heart goes out to mischelle in heaven and her family. Never give up cause you will find the truth. God bless you all.

-- Posted by concerned16 on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 12:16 AM

If Mr. Keezer's DNA is found, there is NOTHING anyone can do. It's called double jeopardy. Between the sheriff and the idiot judge who released him (who is now our U.S. Attorney) this case will NEVER be solved. Well, it was solved and now it isn't. Time will prove me right, but then we'll all be dead by then.

Note that the Missouri State Highway Patrol, FBI nor anyone else is not mentioned as assiting in this investigation. Because this sheriff is on a one man vendetta. One man vendettas make for great drama on television, but agencies cooperating with each other is how real crime gets solved.

I don't live in Scott County, he's not my sheriff. But if I did, I'd be looking for someone else to be the sheriff.

-- Posted by bbqman on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 7:42 AM

Who do you think killed this girl, the Bunny Rabbit? The curent Sheriff is just not correct. Remember the OJ case anyone?

-- Posted by jcjayof61 on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 7:43 AM

Sheriff Walters got the blessings from Michelle's family before it was exhumed a gut wrenching decision to say the least but someone or some people having been walking the streets free for 20 years. Not only will this hopefully put the killer behind bars it will hopefully answer some questions to how and why it was all a cover up. I bet there are a group of people right now that are very very nervous

-- Posted by #1chiefsfan on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 8:00 AM

I'll just get this out of the way. My DNA will not be discovered.

The Southeast Missouri Community needs to come together over this case and assist in it's conclusion and closure.

Politicizing this case ignores and desecrates the memory of the victim and the families still searching for answers. I could spent endless hours orating and expounding on the foolishness, arrogance, lunacy and idiocy of Bill Ferrell, Kenneth Hulshof and their supporters, but would that attain justice for Angela Lawless? No. Along that line of thought, those opposed to my exoneration and Rick Walter's success should follow discretion, close their political mouths and support the investigation to solve Angela Lawless's murder.

Message to those that oppose me: If you're set on accusing me of murder, at least have the decency to support the investigation, the Sheriff's department and the Lawless family. Politicizing this case ignores the need for decency. Lay down your opinion and political fervor at the feet of decency and justice, support the investigation and let the evidence indict, convict and sentence Lawless's murderer.

-- Posted by Josh Kezer on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 8:49 AM

Pardon the typo. I meant to say ... I could 'spend' endless hours orating and expounding on the foolishness, arrogance, lunacy and idiocy of Bill Ferrell, Kenneth Hulshof and their supporters ....

I haven't "spent" endless hours doing this. That would assume they're worth my time. That would be a false assumption.

My time has been better "spent" in thoughtful consideration of and in prayer for the good men and women conducting the murder investigation and the Lawless family.

-- Posted by Josh Kezer on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 9:09 AM

@bbqman - Your claims don't make any sense. If the current sheriff was simply on a vendetta, why would he take the chance of turning up evidence that would show that he helped release the true killer?

-- Posted by Bob T on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 9:53 AM

Kezer is innocent... Let these investigators do what ever it takes to find her killer... I am thankful this case isn't sitting on a shelf collecting dust.

-- Posted by gunn1217 on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 10:58 AM

This isn't even about Josh anymore... He has been exonerated. This is about justice being found and served

-- Posted by gunn1217 on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 11:03 AM

bbqman, You really need to read the non fiction book: "The Innocent Man", by John Grishman.

While reading or listening to this book, replace Ron Williamson's or Dennis Fritz's name with Josh Kezer (or you). Maybe you will understand how small town law enforcement employees convict innocent victims on junk science, and testimony from jailhouse snitch convicts. Scary, very scary.

-- Posted by KuulDood on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 11:47 AM

Very well said Josh. I completely agree.

-- Posted by GREYWOLF on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 11:59 AM

It is my belief that there were two people involved in the murder. I think one is the boyfriend and the other one of the Abbott boys. I've heard from people that were around then and knew her and the other parties involved that say she was killed because she seen and overheard too much about a drug deal between the boyfriend (Leon?) and the Abbotts and she had planned to go to the police about it. And anyone who knows the "informants" that ratted on Kezer in jail... should have known better than to believe anything they had to say. The police were just desperate to make a case. I commend the police for at least working to make things right. It's the way it should be.

-- Posted by taxpayer on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 12:28 PM

My nephew was wrongfully convicted. Period

Posted by Kathy Smith, Bradley IL

-- Posted by JKs_Aunt on Thu, Oct 17, 2013, at 6:32 PM

Until such time as the police/investigators have final and conclusive evidence of DNA samples from the recent samples taken recently, I would like for the media to have no further comments, guesses or publication of who 'thinks' they know something about the case. If you do...go to the police. Allow the Lawless Family to have as much peace, as possible, until all is said and done and someone else or multiple people are arrested.

-- Posted by GoneHunt'nAgain on Fri, Oct 18, 2013, at 4:00 PM

All the arguing on here doesn't help solve the case nor help the family feel any better. Perhaps instead of people making wild accusations and talking about things they don't know you should try sending prayers and encouraging words to the family. This case is very difficult for everyone related to it and seeing people fight over it DOES NOT HELP! It will not bring her back.

-- Posted by KBND on Tue, Mar 11, 2014, at 12:21 PM

I am a guy and I would have a very hard time stopping on the side of the road at night for anyone. Why would a woman? How do you signal to a woman with your car at night that it's safe to pull over? That's when I wondered why do they assume Michelle drove the car out to that spot? Why would someone take her all the way back up the hill and put her in the car, unless they wanted it to look like she was driving? If she was struggling, that would have been a heck of a climb up that embankment? If she was unconscious, she would have been fairly heavy? They found the shell casing in the car, but I don't remember if they talked about finding bullet holes? Was she shot in the car? If she was shot in the car, was the door open or closed (gunshot residue on the outside of the window)? Why didn't the assailant shoot her at the bottom of the hill? Wouldn't whoever carried her up the hill be covered in blood? So sorry for the family.

-- Posted by curious in minnesota on Mon, Oct 20, 2014, at 4:49 PM


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