KANSAS CITY — Attorneys for two defendants convicted in the 1988 explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters said Friday that new evidence warrants further investigation of the case, but they declined to detail what had been found.
Lawyers for Darlene Edwards and Bryan Sheppard, who along with three co-defendants were sentenced to life in prison, said the new evidence comes from witnesses who drove by the blast site before and after the explosion. They refused to detail the evidence, saying it had yet to be given to prosecutors, but insisted it points to other suspects and casts doubt on the government's case.
Cheryl Pilate, Edwards' attorney, called for a grand jury investigation and pleaded for anyone who remembers details about the blast to come forward.
"We believe there are individuals out there who may have seen something important and didn't realize it at the time," said Pilate, who was joined at a news conference by Laura Sullivan, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, which is representing Sheppard.
Pilate said the other two surviving defendants, Frank Sheppard and Richard Brown, will also benefit from the investigation. The fifth person convicted, Earl Sheppard, died in 2009 in a North Carolina prison hospital. All have long maintained their innocence.
A series of stories in The Kansas City Star in 2008 raised questions about whether the five were wrongly convicted, citing 15 witnesses who alleged they were pressured to lie during the defendants' trials. The U.S. Department of Justice later investigated but found "no credible support" for the claims.
Pilate said the new evidence was found after the DOJ's 2011 investigation indicated others were involved in the arson. Prosecutors have said the investigation turned up no exonerating information but that they're willing to look at new evidence.
Firefights were called to a blaze at a southeast Kansas City highway construction site on Nov. 29, 1988. They found a burning 40-foot trailer that held 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. When it exploded, six of the firefighters were killed.
The five defendants were convicted by a jury in 1997. Frank and Skip Sheppard are brothers, while Bryan Sheppard is their nephew and was friends with Brown. Edwards was Frank Sheppard's girlfriend.
On Thursday, after hearing about Pilate's planned Friday news conference, acting U.S. Attorney David Ketchmark said his office had given the lawyer a chance a year ago to present new evidence. He said his office is willing to review the new information and encouraged others with relevant information to contact federal authorities.
"None of the information Ms. Pilate has presented to the United States Attorney's Office to date indicates that the defendants in the firefighters case were wrongfully convicted," Ketchmark said.
His office didn't return a message Friday following the news conference.
Shannon Reimers, Brown's sister, said Friday her brother was at home asleep at the time of the explosions. She said he came from a good family.
"The whole family has taken a great loss and suffering," she said. "Without him, it's been a bad, bad void."