JEFFERSON CITY — After 17 years behind bars for a murder that a judge says he didn't commit, Joshua Kezer shed his inmate's jumpsuit and walked out of a prison a free man Wednesday.
"This is the kind of stuff you dream about," said Kezer, imprisoned since 1992 for the slaying of a 19-year-old nursing student in southeast Missouri. "This is crazy. This is off the chain."
Kezer, 34, left the Jefferson City Correctional Center shortly after 3 p.m. A crowd of friends, family members and TV cameras greeted Kezer as he wrapped his elderly mother in a tight bear hug.
Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan ruled Tuesday that Kezer was wrongly convicted in the death of Angela Mischelle Lawless, a student at Southeast Missouri State University. On Wednesday, Scott County prosecutor Paul Boyd said he would not seek a new trial.
The judge's ruling sharply criticized the courtroom conduct of former Rep. Kenny Hulshof, who as a special state prosecutor helped persuade a jury to convict Kezer of second-degree murder and armed criminal action. Callahan ruled that Hulshof improperly withheld several key pieces of evidence from Kezer's defense attorneys.
As a special state prosecutor, Hulshof handled high-profile murder cases in small Missouri communities that often lacked experienced local prosecutors. He went on to serve six terms in the U.S. House, and lost the 2008 gubernatorial election to Democrat Jay Nixon — his one-time boss in the state Attorney General's Office.
Hulshof now works for a Kansas City-based law firm. He issued a statement Tuesday expressing confidence in the integrity of Kezer's trial and the outcome.
"I remain convinced that Joshua Kezer, a member of the violent Latin Kings gang, is guilty of this crime," Hulshof said.
A Hulshof spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment after Kezer's release.
Kezer, who was serving a 60-year sentence, plans to move to Columbia to be near his mother, who moved to central Missouri from Cape Girardeau to be closer to her son during his imprisonment. He already has a job lined up as a house painter.
Kezer wants to use his public platform to advocate for other inmates he says are innocent. One convict he singled out is Ryan Ferguson, who was found guilty of second-degree murder for the 2001 death of Columbia Daily Tribune sports editor Kent Heitholt.
"There are untold other (innocent) people in prison," Kezer told reporters. "They don't have what I had. They don't have million-dollar attorneys. They don't have friends that are relentless."
Among those greeting Kezer in the prison lobby was Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter, who as a reserve deputy in 1992, discovered Lawless' body in her idling car along an Interstate 55 exit ramp in southeast Missouri.
Walter said he was plagued with doubts about the case for years. After being elected Scott County sheriff in 2004, he assigned a team of investigators to re-examine the case. The renewed scrutiny turned up several key pieces of evidence that contributed to Kezer's release.
In addition to the prosecutorial misconduct by Hulshof, the Cole County judge also ruled that Kezer met the legal burden of "demonstrating actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence. ... Confidence in his conviction and sentence are so undermined that they cannot stand and must be set aside."
Walter said he "wanted to see (Kezer) walk out these doors."
Joan Kezer blamed her son's conviction on "small-town justice and pompous political pride." There was no physical evidence or eyewitnesses connecting Kezer to the crime. His alibi at trial was that he was 350 miles away in Kankakee, Ill., on the night of the murder.
The state's prosecution was based almost entirely on the testimony of another suspect in Lawless' death who came forward months later and said he saw Kezer at a nearby convenience store the night of the killing. But Mark Abbott — who is serving a 20-year drug sentence in federal prison — had offered conflicting testimony in earlier police interviews as well as subsequent statements.
Three Cape Girardeau County jail inmates also claimed that Kezer had confessed to killing Lawless. They later acknowledged lying in hopes of getting reduced sentence on their own pending charges, but Hulshof persuaded the trial judge to keep that reversal out of court. He argued that Kezer's defense attorney coerced the statements by threatening the inmates.
"Hulshof has to live with his own actions, and take responsibility for his own deeds," Kezer said. "His refusal to take any accountability is a shame.
"If anything, my life from this day forward is going to prove him wrong. It's going to prove I'm worth more than trash, that my life matters and has value."
After leaving prison, Kezer stopped at the Cole County courthouse to personally thank Callahan, a longtime local prosecutor before becoming a judge. Kezer also had his photo taken outside the forbidding walls of the old state prison near the Capitol, where he spent more than a decade before the building closed in 2004.
The next stop was a steak dinner in Columbia, where freedom awaited.