COLUMBIA — As a star prosecutor, Kenny Hulshof could rivet a courtroom. His commanding presence and oratorical skills led to convictions in some of the state’s most gruesome death penalty cases — and paved the way to six terms in Congress.
Now Hulshof wants to be governor of Missouri, a job that includes the ability to grant a pardon or commute a death sentence.
But in the midst of a Republican primary campaign against state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, his seven-year record as a state prosecutor specializing in small-town murder cases is coming under added scrutiny.
An Associated Press review of court dockets, state and federal appellate decisions and other legal records shows that in four cases, prosecutorial errors by Hulshof led to death sentence reversals.
Another accused murderer won acquittal by a new jury at a second trial after his Hulshof-prosecuted conviction was rejected on appeal. A sixth defendant sentenced to life in prison without parole briefly won his freedom when a federal judge tossed out the conviction, although it was later restored.
And in southeast Missouri, a sheriff who helped Hulshof convict a man in the 1992 killing of a 19-year-old college student has reopened the investigation into her death.
Hulshof’s errors cited by appeals courts often occurred during closing arguments, or in a trial’s penalty phase. Judges said that Hulshof too readily embellished arguments with his own opinions, or with facts outside the court record.
In one case, a murder conviction was tossed because jurors were given a highway map during deliberations that hadn’t been introduced as evidence.
In another, an undated note from a woman allegedly killed by her husband describing the couples’ marital troubles was rejected as hearsay by an appeals court after Hulshof introduced it as evidence.
Critics say that Hulshof’s record reflects a lawyer who crossed the line from zealous representative of the people to a politically ambitious prosecutor willing to bend the rules for the sake of a conviction.
“This is kind of the way he operates,” said Sean O’Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who represented Faye Copeland and Dale Helmig as an appellate defense lawyer. They are two of the six defendants whose Hulshof-led sentences were overturned. “He’s always very aggressive. He is extremely skilled. And he creates suspicion out of no evidence.”
Hulshof offers a different explanation. Taken collectively, the seven disputed cases merely show that the legal system and its inherent checks and balances worked as intended.
“The tension of the system working is that you have an aggressive defense attorney, and you have a tough but fair prosecutor,” he said. “And once you walk into the courtroom ... you have equal adversaries presenting a case to a jury. The judge is the referee. And then whatever the jury says is justice.”
According to Hulshof, he handled 31 murder cases in 10 years as a state and county prosecutor. He won death penalty convictions in eight of those trials — four of which are among the disputed cases.
Hulshof, 50, began his legal career in 1983 as an assistant public defender fresh out of the University of Mississippi law school. He remained with the office for three years, representing indigent defendants unable to pay for private attorneys.
Among his clients was Jerome Mallett, who was convicted in 1986 of murdering a state trooper during an Interstate 55 traffic stop in Perry County. Mallett was put to death in July 2001, with Hulshof — by then an incumbent congressman — viewing the execution at his own request as a state’s witness.
Hulshof joined the office of Cape Girardeau Prosecutor Morley Swingle when he was recruited by the newly elected Swingle in November 1986. He remained there for three years as Swingle’s top assistant before joining the attorney general’s office.
Swingle called his protege a tenacious courtroom advocate with a flair for connecting with the jury.
With his boyish good looks and southeast Missouri drawl, Hulshof could have jurors hanging on nearly his every word, Swingle and others recall.
“Kenny was one of the best trial lawyers I had ever seen,” Swingle said. “He is such a persuasive speaker. He could really get a jury to see the facts his way. He could tell a suspenseful story and keep people’s attention.”
Hulshof said his work in the Mallett case caught the attention of his courtroom adversary in that trial, state Special Prosecutor Tim Finnical, who was known as “Dr. Death” for his success at death penalty cases.
Finnical recommended that then-Attorney General Bill Webster, a Republican, hired Hulshof as his successor. When Democrat Jay Nixon defeated David Steelman for attorney general in 1992 — Webster ran for governor and lost — Nixon kept the Republican attorney on board. He did the same after Hulshof’s first unsuccessful bid for Congress two years later, much to the chagrin of some Democratic party leaders.
Nixon, who remains attorney general, is the likely Democratic nominee for governor. His role as Hulshof’s former boss makes it unlikely that the Republican’s prosecutorial record will become a campaign issue, Hulshof acknowledged.
Nor does Nixon seem eager to attack Hulshof’s prosecutorial record.
“It’s no secret that Jay Nixon is probably the toughest attorney general in Missouri history. He encourages the prosecutors in his office to be aggressive and seek stiff penalties for violent criminals, and Congressman Hulshof was one of those assistants,” said Nixon campaign spokesman Oren Shur.
The Steelman campaign isn’t nearly as cautious.
“Kenny Hulshof has been running away from his overspending and earmark record in Congress,” said Steelman spokesman Spence Jackson. “Now these revelations bring into question his overall competency and ability to do the job it takes to be governor. This is a very disturbing pattern of behavior from Congressman Hulshof.”
In his state job, Hulshof traveled Missouri from one small-town courthouse to the next, aiding overmatched local prosecutors who in some cases had never tried a first-degree murder case and needed the state’s help. Or they lacked the investigative resources to build a case based on circumstantial evidence or recalcitrant witnesses.
“If it was the proverbial shooting-fish-in-a-barrel case,” Hulshof said during a 90-minute interview, “we wouldn’t get the call.”
Hulshof offers explanations for each of the cases where his courtroom conduct was later questioned.
In the case of Walter Timothy Storey — a St. Charles man convicted of breaking into his neighbor’s apartment and slitting her throat — Hulshof noted that the state Supreme Court had then yet to consider a prosecutorial tactic he learned at a national conference.
In Storey, the high court cited four “egregious errors” committed by Hulshof in the trial’s penalty phase. The tactic he picked up at the prosecutors’ conference — asking jurors whose life was more important, the victim or the defendant’s — was just one of the four excesses identified on appeal.
In the case of Shirley Joe Phillips, a Greene County woman convicted of murdering a woman whose dismembered body was found near Springfield, the state Supreme Court later ruled that defense attorneys never received a tape recording of a witness who said Phillips’ son dismembered the body while she drove a car.
The reason: The tape did not surface until after trial, when it was found in the desk drawer of a sheriff’s deputy who had taken ill during the initial investigation. Hulshof said he didn’t know about the tape until later; the trial court judge supported Hulshof’s account.
Phillips was later re-sentenced to life in prison without parole.
On Monday, Hulshof’s prosecutorial record will come under yet another judicial review when a Cole County judge hears a request for a new trial by Joshua Kezer, who has been imprisoned for 14 years for the 1992 killing of a 19-year-old college student in southeast Missouri.
Kezer was convicted almost entirely on the testimony of Mark Abbott, who testified that he saw Kezer at a gas station near where Angela Mischelle Lawless’ body was found. An interview with Scott City police showed that he had previously named another person, but Kezer’s appellate attorney said that interview was never shared with his original defense attorney.
Inconsistencies in the Kezer case have led Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter — a former reserve deputy who responded to the Lawless murder scene — to reopen his own investigation. Hulshof said he wasn’t aware of Abbott’s subsequent interview, and unlike some of the other disputed cases, no appeals court has faulted Hulshof’s conduct.
In southwest Missouri, banker George Revelle was convicted in February 1996 of killing his wife, Lisa, while she slept to collect on a $500,000 insurance policy. One year later, the state Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial, calling an undated note from Lisa Revelle about marital trouble inadmissible hearsay. A second jury acquitted George Revelle in December 1998.
Hulshof’s prosecutorial record was a campaign issue in his first two bids for Congress — but not because of concerns he was too tough on criminal defendants.
Instead, both winning Democratic incumbent Harold Volkmer in 1994 and Republican primary challenger Harry Eggleston two years later ran ads slamming Hulshof for his failure to respond to a petition for a speedy trial by accused killer Vance Roy Clark. The defendant was subsequently released from jail.
Hulshof says his courtroom conduct, like his 12-year congressional record, is fair game for scrutiny as he runs for governor. He’s confident that any such inquiry would reveal nothing less than a fair and impartial advocate.
“My father never finished college, he never made a lot of money, but still was the wisest man I ever knew,” said Hulshof. “And he said that the only thing worth keeping in life is your good name.
“That has motivated me through these past 12 years in Congress. It would motivate me as governor. And it certainly motivated me throughout those years in the criminal justice world.”