KANSAS CITY - The Midwest Innocence Project is opening its own investigation into the case of five people convicted of causing a 1988 explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters, and Missouri School of Journalism students will help investigate.
Jay Swearingen, executive director of the Kansas City-based organization, said allegations of witness intimidation and other misconduct by law enforcement officers during the investigation of the explosion, reported by The Kansas City Star, led his group to begin reviewing records to see if the defendants were wrongly convicted and should be released from prison.
"Our organization was set up to look for injustices in the criminal justice system," Swearingen said Friday, "and when we see potential injustices as glaring as those in this case, how can we refuse to take it?"
He said the explosion case would be "by far the largest and most prominent" of the 300 cases the project is reviewing.
Swearingen also acknowledged that the group is going to have to do some fundraising, estimating the investigation will cost more than $250,000.
The project joins the Justice Department, which began looking into the case last month following a request from U.S. Attorney John Wood of Kansas City.
Wood asked for the Justice review following a June 29 article in the Star, and has referred all subsequent questions to the Justice Department. Department spokeswoman Carrie Nelson told the Star Friday that she couldn't comment on the case at this time.
Cheryl Pilate, a board member of the Innocence Project and the attorney for one of the defendants, said she believed the government ignored critical evidence and important leads.
"We hope and anticipate that individuals with relevant information about the case will continue to come forward," Pilate said. "We also hope the Department of Justice will publicly identify a contact person so that we can provide important information to those who are examining the prosecution's case."
On Nov. 29, 1988, Kansas City firefighters were called to a blaze at a southeast Kansas City highway construction site. They arrived to find a burning, 40-foot trailer that held 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil.
The trailer exploded, killing firefighters Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham.
A jury in 1997 convicted brothers Frank and Skip Sheppard; their nephew, Bryan Sheppard; Richard Brown, who was a friend of the nephew; and Darlene Edwards, who was Frank Sheppard's girlfriend.
The five were believed to have burned an explosives trailer and a security guard's pickup at the site to cover up a botched burglary.
All five still deny any involvement and were convicted despite there being little physical evidence and no eyewitnesses placing them at the scene.
Instead, the case, which remained unsolved until a federal/local task force was formed in 1995, was built on interviews with hundreds of other witnesses as well as testimony from jailhouse informants.
"I thank God and am very grateful," said Virgie Sheppard, Bryan Sheppard's mother, when told of the Innocence Project's involvement. "It's been more than 10 years since I have held him outside prison walls."
The Star reported that numerous witnesses in the grand jury proceedings and trial now say they lied under oath after being threatened by the lead investigator in the case.
Other potential witnesses say either they were pressured to lie and refused - sometimes receiving harsh retribution from law enforcement - or evidence they provided that potentially cleared some of the defendants was ignored.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker, the lead prosecutor in the case, said none of his investigators used improper tactics. The lead investigator, retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent Dave True, also denies wrongdoing.
Swearingen said his organization, which investigates cases in six Midwestern states, would fund its review of the case partly with a $100,000 grant from the Oklahoma City-based Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
He said the money would help pay students from the School of Journalism to help in the investigation, which may also include law students from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and MU.