COLUMBIA — Sitting at a table in Starbucks on Friday morning, Joshua Kezer looked in amused disbelief at the white chocolate mocha and bottle of water in front of him.
"I can't believe I'm actually drinking a Starbucks coffee," he said, laughing. "I used to mock people for doing that. I used to mock people for buying bottled water. It's like the pet rock; it's genius. This is what I have to do with my money — find a way to market a rock or water."
Suddenly, he has some money to fund his ideas. Kezer found out Tuesday that a settlement had been reached in the lawsuit he filed against Scott County and the former law enforcement officers who helped put him behind bars.
Conviction, exoneration, compensation
Kezer was imprisoned in 1994, convicted of murdering Angela Mischelle Lawless two years earlier. In February 2009, former Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan exonerated Kezer in a strongly worded decision, finding that the "nondisclosure" of evidence "constituted a violation of Josh Kezer's constitutional due process rights." The judge also found that Kezer had proven his own innocence.
Now living in Columbia, Kezer sought compensatory and punitive damages for suppression of material exculpatory evidence and wrongful arrest. Former Scott County Sheriff William Ferrell and former deputy Brenda Schiwitz were named as defendants in the suit along with Scott County.
Though the terms of the settlement, including the amount Kezer will receive, have not been released, he called the amount "substantial" in a statement released Wednesday.
"The settlement couldn't have happened to a more deserving person," said Stephen Snodgrass, one of Kezer's attorneys. "He's a fine young man, and it's remarkable how he managed to hold himself together through 16 years of a very terrible experience."
Jane Williams played an important role in helping Kezer overturn his conviction. A Columbia social worker and founder of the local chapter of Love INC, an organization that connects with people recently released from prison into the community, Williams first met Kezer in the chapel at the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
"My main role was supporting Josh," she said. She wrote the 20-page overview of his initial trial and eventually connected with a private investigator and lawyers willing to take on his case.
"When these types of suits are filed and won, I think it sends a message to law enforcement and prosecutors that they need to be careful," Williams said. "They have to find the right person, not just close the case."
Rebuilding a relationship
When Kezer got the phone call telling him the settlement had been finalized, he was in Kankakee, Ill., celebrating his father's 60th birthday. The symbolism wasn't lost on him: What was wrong had been made right in more ways than one.
Kezer and his father are now close. They'd had a strained relationship before he went to prison, and it became even worse during the nearly 16 years he spent behind bars.
"He couldn't come and see me but twice because it hurt him too badly to see me in that hellhole," Kezer said in his Wednesday statement.
During his time in prison, Kezer relied on the Bible and his faith in God to help him survive his ordeal. It was through his faith that he was able to see a way to rebuild a relationship with his father.
"When I got locked up, I started seeing God as my father," he said. "And you can't read that word 'father' without thinking about your own. It just became a very real thing to me."
Now, the two are going fishing together again, a pastime that began for father and son when Kezer was a boy. They're going to the movies and sharing steak dinners.
It's all part of moving on and living a normal life.
Another part of it is forgiving everyone who had a role in what happened to him. But Kezer still struggles to forgive the pain both his family and the Lawless family endured.
"They (Ferrell, Schiwitz and the others involved in prosecuting his case) were like dog fighters," Kezer said. "They threw two pit bulls in the ring, and they treated the Lawless family and my family like that. What right did they have to do that?"
Ferrell's response to his direct offer of forgiveness frustrates him. He said Ferrell never truly took responsibility during a mediation session that took place as part of the settlement process.
Ferrell did not return requests for comment.
"We're not in agreement, as individuals and as ideologies in this case, we're not at peace," Kezer said. "And until they're willing to admit what they did was inappropriate and unjust ... that their actions destroyed two families and have set back an entire community of people, we'll never be at peace."
But Kezer isn't losing sleep over it, and the case is closed.
"They don't mean anything to me," he said. "They're a bunch of paper tigers," things that seem dangerous from a distance but lack substance.
For now, Kezer wants to continue reaching out to the community and sharing his experience and his faith.
"Money's not going to change me," he said. "It might change the quantity of my life, but it won't change the quality. Quality is not in possessions."