JEFFERSON CITY — A southeast Missouri man convicted 14 years ago in a college student’s murder but who claims innocence moved one step closer Monday toward the chance to clear his name.
Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan tentatively approved a request by Joshua Kezer’s appellate lawyers to test bullets, shell casings and bloody evidence found at the scene of Angela Mischelle Lawless’ death in 1992.
Kezer and his lawyers say that a key prosecution witness lied about seeing Kezer the night of Lawless’ murder near an Interstate 55 exit ramp. Doubts about the case have led Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter — a former reserve deputy who responded to the Lawless murder scene — to reopen his own investigation.
Kezer was prosecuted by Rep. Kenny Hulshof, a Republican candidate for governor who at the time was a special state prosecutor.
“We’ve got more work to do,” said Charles Weiss, a St. Louis attorney who is representing Kezer on appeal.
Callahan didn’t issue a formal ruling in the 10-minute hearing, during which he, Weiss and a lawyer from the office of Attorney General Jay Nixon conferred in soft voices that could barely be heard in the court gallery.
But Weiss said after the hearing that his counterpart with the state didn’t object to the request for additional forensics and DNA testing, and that Callahan asked the attorneys to draft a court order to that effect for his signature.
Kezer was convicted almost entirely on statements by Mark Abbott, who testified that he saw Kezer at a gas station near where Lawless’ body was found. An interview with Scott City police showed that Abbott had previously named another person, but Kezer’s appellate attorney said that interview was never shared with his original defense attorney.
Abbott — a federal inmate imprisoned in Wisconsin on drug charges for the past decade — changed his version of that account at least five times, according to Weiss’ 63-page habeas corpus petition for a new trial.
Kezer was later implicated by three inmates at the Cape Girardeau County jail, at least two of whom cut deals for lesser sentences on their own charges. One of those witnesses later recanted his account and testified for the defense at trial; a second inmate told Kezer he had made up the story but subsequently reverted to his original account at Kezer’s trial.
Hulshof has said he wasn’t aware of Abbott’s subsequent interview with police. And unlike four other death penalty cases he handled in which prosecutorial errors by Hulshof led to death sentence reversals, no appeals court has faulted Hulshof’s conduct in the Kezer case.
But among the 10 Kezer friends and family members who attended Monday’s hearing, those questions linger. Among the concerns: In an interview with the Southeast Missourian newspaper, Hulshof acknowledged attending high school with the father of Lawless, the murder victim.
A Hulshof spokesman said Monday that suggesting a conflict of interest on Hulshof’s part was “grasping at straws.”
“It appears there are those who are desperate to somehow make this case about Kenny Hulshof,” said spokesman Scott Baker.
Joan Kezer said she is hopeful that her son will be released from prison. The hearing was held in Cole County because that is where Kezer is imprisoned. Another hearing is scheduled for July 28.
“I’ve always had hope,” she said after the hearing. “Now the hope has been extended by the involvement of more people.”