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Witness in murder trial changes story

Sunday, June 1, 2008 | 4:33 p.m. CDT; updated 1:17 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

CAPE GIRARDEAU — A man whose testimony provided key evidence in the case linking a convicted man to the scene of a 1992 murder now says he could have been wrong.

Mark Abbott, a federal prisoner, said in a letter to the Southeast Missourian newspaper that it’s possible he could have been wrong in identifying Joshua Kezer as the man he saw near where police found a dead woman’s body.

“I ask myself, could I be wrong about him, and the answer is yes. At that time, I believed it was him,” Abbott wrote.

His letter, along with questions raised by the attorney general’s office about a key document in the case, are the latest to dispute Kezer’s conviction. Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter reopened the murder investigation in 2006 after he became convinced that new evidence might prove Kezer’s innocence.

Kezer was convicted during his 1994 trial based largely on witness testimony. A number of witnesses have since changed their stories, saying they implicated Kezer to get lighter sentences for criminal charges they faced at the time.

Kezer has been imprisoned nearly 15 years for the killing.

In 1994, Abbott testified that Kezer was the man he’d seen at a convenience store near where police found Angela Mischelle Lawless’ body.

Lawless was found shot to death in her car at a highway exit ramp near Benton in November 1992. Police believe she struggled with one or more attackers outside her car.

Abbott wrote that when he identified Kezer and a white Plymouth Duster as the person and vehicle he saw Nov. 8, 1992, when Lawless was killed, Scott County officers “looked like they hit the lottery.” He said in his letter he was surprised to learn that Kezer’s photo in the lineup was the only one to contain a placard with the words “police department” on it and that he hadn’t realized that at the time.

A hearing in that case is scheduled for June 9 before Cole County Judge Richard Callahan. Defense attorney Charles Weiss has filed a motion citing new evidence showing Kezer’s innocence.

Police reports show Abbott originally described the man he’d seen as having a dark complexion.

Several other witnesses gave statements indicating Abbott’s story changed, but Abbott denied that.

“They changed it,” he said, referring to law enforcement.

The prosecutor in Kezer’s 1994 case was then-assistant attorney general Kenny Hulshof, who is now a U.S. congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Hulshof told the Southeast Missourian the prosecution knew Abbott’s credibility would be an issue during the trial and said he and an investigator grilled Abbott intensely during interviews. His story held up, Hulshof said.

Abbott said he believed things he heard from other people during the time of Kezer’s trial may have influenced his identification. “I asked myself a million times, if I could have been wrong,” Abbott wrote. “... And today, I really believe it could have been possible.”

Kezer, who has maintained his innocence since his 1993 arrest, said he doesn’t have any expectations about the possibility of a new trial.

“I’m just trying to wrap my head around the fact that this is happening,” Kezer said.

Kezer received a 60-year sentence for the murder conviction and was eligible for parole last August. The parole was denied after a hearing in which he maintained his innocence.

“I’m no longer some child running the streets, I’m a man who’s been educated by hard knocks, by the gospel of Christ, by both healthy and unhealthy relationships,” he said.


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