BENTON — The body of a southeast Missouri nursing student who was killed in 1992 was exhumed this week in an effort to collect DNA evidence in a case that turned cold after the man imprisoned for the crime was found to be wrongfully convicted.
Angela Mischelle Lawless's body was exhumed Tuesday, 21 years after she was found dead in her car on an Interstate 55 exit ramp in southeast Missouri. The 19-year-old was shot three times and struck in the head.
Josh Kezer, now 38, spent 16 years in prison for the killing before being exonerated in 2009 when a judge ruled that key evidence was kept from Kezer's defense attorneys at trial. Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter reopened the case in 2006, believing Kezer to be innocent. Kezer later received a multi-million dollar settlement after suing Scott County.
The Southeast Missourian reported Thursday that authorities also plan to test wounds on Lawless that weren't previously examined. Some of those wounds appeared to have been scratches caused by fingernails, the sheriff said.
"There was technology to do all this back then, but for some reason, it wasn't done," Walter said. Lawless' body was reburied later Tuesday.
Walter received permission from the victim's family before obtaining a court order to exhume the body. The sheriff said he wasn't sure the DNA would be intact after more than two decades, but he decided to try. The test results likely won't be known for several months.
"The chances after 20 years of DNA even being gathered from the body all depends on how a body was prepared for burial," he said.
Kezer, who now lives in Columbia, said he was shocked when he learned Wednesday that Lawless' body had been exhumed.
"You have to understand: This is an extremely old wound for the family and for me," he said. "When this happened to her, you know, it created a wound in a lot of people, and every time something like this comes up and then nothing happens as a result, it's like sticking a hot iron poker into the wound."
Kezer, who was arrested after several jailhouse informants implicated him in exchange for leniency with their own sentences, said exhuming the body could create false hope for the Lawless family if it doesn't lead to charges against a new suspect.
"If this is creating this kind of emotion in me, imagine what it's creating in her family," he said. "Naturally, it's opened a door of hope in her family, because they're thinking, 'The sheriff's not going to do this, and the scientists are not going to do this unless they're sure they've got something.' ... They need to honor that hope."