JEFFERSON CITY — Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter didn't set out to help free a state prison inmate convicted of killing a 19-year-old college student in rural southeast Missouri 17 years ago.
There were plenty of people — including former investigators and the powerful ex-sheriff who led the Scott County force for nearly three decades — to remind Walter of the potential damage to his political career.
After all, it was Kenny Hulshof, a tough-on-crime special prosecutor who parlayed his credentials into six terms in Congress and the Republican nomination for governor in 2008, who got the got the second-degree murder conviction against Joshua Kezer.
But Walter, 48, stuck to his convictions. On Wednesday, he joined friends, family members and defense lawyers for Kezer outside the state prison to celebrate the release of a man who spent nearly half his life behind bars for a murder a judge says he couldn't possibly have committed.
"This could have been a career-ending decision," said Walter, a Democrat first elected in 2004. "There's a lot of people who did not want me to do this. Law enforcement was my biggest stumbling block."
As a reserve deputy in 1992, Walter discovered Angela Mischelle Lawless' body in her idling car along an Interstate 55 exit ramp just west of the Mississippi River. She had been shot three times.
A crime scene suggesting that Lawless was killed after a struggle convinced Walter that at least two people were responsible. He raised that and other suspicions, both during the initial investigation and after Kezer's 1994 conviction.
"I went as far as I could go. And it fell on deaf ears," he said. "The sheriff said, 'I have a conviction in this case, I don't even want to hear it, case closed.'"
Former Sheriff Bill Ferrell, who retired in 2004 after 28 years in office, did not respond to messages left at his Sikeston home requesting an interview.
Walter — who worked as a construction supervisor before joining the department full time in 1996 — ran against Ferrell in the 2000 election but lost by several hundred votes. He then worked briefly as a U.S. Customs Service officer in Chicago before returning to southeast Missouri to work as a police officer in Charleston.
On Tuesday, Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan ruled that Kezer, who was 17 at the time of the killing, was wrongly convicted in Lawless' death.
The judge's 44-page ruling included a stinging rebuke of Hulshof's courtroom conduct. Callahan said Hulshof withheld key evidence from defense attorneys and embellished details in his closing arguments.
Hulshof lost the 2008 governor's race to Democrat Jay Nixon, his former boss in the state attorney general's office. Other than a statement issued Tuesday in which he affirmed his belief that Kezer is guilty, Hulshof has declined to comment.
When Walter first visited the Jefferson City Correctional Center to explain his interest in taking another look at the case, Kezer greeted him warily.
"I didn't set out to free Josh," Walter said. "And I told him that at our first meeting. He was a little cold and didn't trust me."
But when Kezer walked out of the prison's front doors, dressed in civilian clothes brought by a family friend, he kept a promise made to the sheriff and vigorously shook Walter's hand.
"He showed a lot of courage in coming to see me the first time," Kezer said. "He didn't know what to expect. ... But he still decided to look me in my eyes. He didn't play games with me. He told me was going to find out the truth.
"I told him what the truth was, but he didn't really listen to that too much. He wanted to find out what the truth was for himself."
Walter's renewed investigation meant frequent collaboration with Kezer's defense attorneys from a St. Louis law firm that took the case for free.
That sort of cooperation among traditional adversaries is becoming more common with the growing awareness of wrongful conviction cases such as Kezer's, said Olga Akselrod, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project, a New York-based group that works to free the wrongly accused.
"The sheriff's involvement in this case is unusual and highly commendable," said Akselrod, who assisted Kezer's defense team. "He's a big reason why an innocent person who was still in prison all these years is now out. The trend is clearly toward more cooperation from law enforcement."
Walter said that his re-election last year affirmed that "the majority of people in Scott County wanted the truth."
Back in his office Thursday, he was already turning his attention to following up on new leads he hopes will result in new charges being filed in Lawless' death.
"There's still a hole here," Walter said. "You don't want to lose sight of what started this. Somebody killed Mischelle Lawless. I will feel better when I put someone in the cell that Josh was in."