Kezer says he knows exactly how he survived prison, serving time for a crime he didn't commit: with the help of God.

Story by ALICIA SWARTZ
Photos by JOON HYOUNG KIM

news@ColumbiaMissourian.com

Josh Kezer gets carsick even on short rides out to dinner. The fork and knife set before him are comically huge after eating every meal for so long with a small plastic spork. The call of frogs along the MKT Trail seems absurdly loud.

But none of this really bothers him. His reactions to life these days are childlike.

After his release from prison just more than two months ago after serving nearly 16 years for a crime he didn’t commit, Kezer, 34, celebrates the mundane: a car ride, a plate of sliced fruit, going out to eat or holding a baby at church.

Kezer was convicted in 1994 of the murder of a Southeast Missouri State University student and sentenced to serve two consecutive 30-year terms. He was exonerated in February when a judge threw out the original verdict in light of new evidence.

Kezer considers his release only the second part of his salvation. He believes worshiping God, reading the Bible and prayer gave him the patience to endure the failures of the justice system and the deprivations of prison.

But it’s not Job he relates to most from the Bible; it’s Lazarus. According to the New Testament, Jesus stayed away from Lazarus for two days because he did not want to heal a sick man but instead raise a dead man.

“Jesus did not want anything less than actual innocence for me,” Kezer said. “He knew it would take time.”

He was 18 when he was arrested at his father’s home in Kankakee, Ill., a suspect in the November 1992 murder of Angela Mischelle Lawless in Scott County.

Kezer produced alibi witnesses and maintained his innocence, but it was not enough to convince a Ste. Genevieve County jury, for whom the murder was well-known. He was convicted of second-degree murder and armed criminal action; his sentence was handed down on Aug. 2, 1994 — the victim's birthday.

He was shocked by the verdict. “I didn’t know how that could happen," Kezer said. "The first time I ever saw the victim was when her obituary was printed in the paper.”

He remembers the terror that followed his sentencing hearing when the reality sank in that he would be going to prison for 60 years. His next memory is of waking up with his aunt holding him in a room in the courthouse. He’d blacked out.

It was a fitting beginning to what felt to Kezer, looking back, like dying.

Finding courage

“I lost everything,” Kezer said.

His life at the time he was arrested isn’t something he brags about. He wasn't in school. He'd been kicked out in ninth grade because the school found out he lived out of the district.

"The principal called me in and said I had two choices: I could quit, or he would kick me out," Kezer said.

He wouldn't quit because of the fear of his life falling apart, with "the possibility of living under a bridge." A year later, he actually found himself standing underneath a bridge, making the wrong friends.

He became a member of the All Mighty Latin Kings gang. "It all started when that principal kicked me out of junior high," Kezer said.

At the time of the murder, Kezer was living with his father and working at Kmart. “I was just trying to figure things out, working to make ends meet,” Kezer said.

He had beliefs about God but no spiritual life before he entered the Kankakee County Jail. If he hadn’t begun to listen to what he believes God was saying to him right from the beginning, Kezer fears what he might have become.

“It would have been easy to become something not good; everyone else was doing it,” he said. “I had the courage to not follow the crowd, which is a lot more difficult in prison than it could ever be out here.”

Prison was an unnatural, “animalistic world,” he said.

"Some people begin to call their cells 'home,'" he said. "But it was never my home. Ever. It was only where I lived."

His eyes darted toward the floor, and he sat up in his chair and clenched his fists as he talked about his incarceration. "Prison did everything it could to take God out of my heart, to drive me insane," he said. "But I never lost the wildness in my heart that God intends to be there."

Although he felt an immediate tugging at his heart from God, many things that he saw happen could have torn him away from his faith.

One of those things was the rape of prisoners by other inmates. When he talked about it, he closed his eyes and braced himself in his chair. “It happens,” he said. “It’s not making love. It’s bleeding, bruising, it’s beating. It’s making other men do despicable things. Making a man dress up like he’s a girl, making him wear makeup, humiliating him in front of everyone.”

“It’s monstrous. They have names: They call them 'punk,' 'a boy.' The person that owns them, 'Daddy,'” Kezer said. "It's twisted."

The abuse of the word "Daddy" and the dishonoring of fatherhood it implied disturbed Kezer. "Society should care about this," he said. "Just because a man is sent (to prison), doesn't mean he deserves to be abused."

He said he was never raped in prison, though there were attempts. Kezer was once beat up so badly by four other inmates, he had to be hospitalized for several weeks.

The warden at Jefferson City Correction Center declined a request for an interview about Kezer, citing Department of Corrections policy.

The beating was one of the ways other inmates tried to bring him down, he said. But he kept to himself and “spent time with God.” He was hesitant to make friends, reluctant to trust anyone but God.

So he spent a lot of time on his knees in the church chapel praying for deliverance. Inspiration was hard to come by, though ministers often visited Jefferson City Correctional Center, where he was transferred after his trial.

“I love it when preachers visit the prisons,” he said with a laugh. “When they are preaching the Gospel, they are preaching to the guilty. I always had to find another message of hope and victory.”

Salvation in prison

From day one, Kezer worked to prove his innocence and immediately began to prepare his case for appeal. His first appeal was denied.

In 1997, he began working with a private investigator. He brought four complaints to the Missouri Court of Appeals, including that his trial lawyer had been ineffective and that the prosecution — Kenny Hulshof, the special prosecutor from the attorney general's office — had violated the discovery orders.

The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's decision.

(Hulshof, former Ninth District congressman and candidate for governor in 2008, did not return phone calls requesting interviews. He has given only one interview about Kezer's release, according to The Poston Report, and that was on Feb. 23 on the Mark Reardon show on KMOX 1120 NewsRadio.)

After five years of making his case and pleading his innocence, Kezer hit bottom. “No one wanted to listen, so I just stopped talking,” he said.

He felt helpless. But when he lost his will to fight the justice system, he gained more faith in God.

“The beautiful thing is how God brought me through: alive, healthy, sane, whole, at peace, and preserved and protected,” Kezer said.

He kept praying. Little did he know that someone on the outside, Jane Williams, was watching and praying for him, too.

Jane Williams is the wife of Scott Williams, the associate pastor of Christian Fellowship Church in Columbia. She is also the founder of Love INC, or Love in the Name of Christ, an organization that connects with people recently released from prison into the community.

“There were times during that five-year period I thought I was alone. I would talk to God and believe that he was going to do something to set this straight," Kezer said. "He kind of showed me that even in those five years when I thought I was alone, I wasn’t. Jane was praying for me and loving me and supporting me.”

Williams said there are about 35 people who come into Columbia every month who are released on the streets with nothing. Love INC helps these people assimilate into society.

“If they don’t have this support, it can be just a revolving door,” she said. “People change in prison, and they need someone to help.”

Williams has written many devotionals and spends time in prisons passing out religious literature and praying with inmates. She recalls the first time she saw Kezer.

It was also the first time she had been to the prison in Jefferson City. She was in the chapel, passing out Bibles. A crowd of inmates was milling around and socializing. She remembers looking over and seeing a young man with a long ponytail off by himself, on his knees praying.

Williams asked the woman working in the chapel, “Who is that young kid with the long ponytail, praying by himself in the corner?”

The woman answered: “That’s Josh Kezer. He’s innocent.”


Josh Kezer takes a walk in the woods near Jane Williams' house.



Josh Kezer enjoys a walk in the park on April 24. In response to life after serving 16 years for a crime he did not commit, he said that he is a 'free man.' Kezer considers his release only the second part of his salvation and credits his new innocence to God.


Making decisions about lunch offers Kezer a kind of freedom he lacked in prison. Now that he is no longer in prison, Kezer finds joy in everyday activities, such as choosing a sandwich.


Kezer checks his UPS box after returing from an out of town trip to Illinois.


Kezer balances his checkbook after returning from a trip to Illinois where he saw his dad.

 

The trial

In November 1992, the body of 19-year- old Angela Mischelle Lawless was found in her idling car on an Interstate 55 exit ramp in Scott County. She had been shot three times, once in the back of the head.

The first to arrive at the scene was Scott County Reserve Deputy Rick Walter. The investigation into Lawless’ death revealed several suspects, Walter said. But it was the statements of three inmates at Cape Girardaeu County Jail that turned the focus to Josh Kezer.

The three inmates, who claimed to be friends of Kezer’s, said they saw him in an apartment where he confessed to killing Lawless. Kezer, 17 at the time of the homicide, was arrested in March 1993. He was tried in 1994.

Kenny Hulshof, special prosecutor for the state attorney general’s office, argued the state's case.

The prosecution offered the following as evidence:

- A witness who claimed he saw Kezer near the murder scene and identified a car, thought to be Kezer's,

- Three inmates who testified Kezer had confessed to the murder,

- A witness who testified she saw Kezer arguing with the victim at a Halloween party days before the murder,

- Evidence that Kezer owned the gun used in the murder, and

- Physical evidence of blood on Kezer’s jacket, suggesting he had been in the victim’s car.

Strong evidence that Kezer was not the killer was presented in his original trial, but it didn't sway the jury, including:

- Testimony from an expert witness who testified he couldn’t determine that the substance found on Kezer’s jacket was blood but could be anything with oxidant in it, like vegetable oil.

- Witnesses who testified Kezer was 350 miles away in Kankakee, Ill., on the night of the murder.

- The only gun Kezer owned was a BB gun.

Other evidence came to light only after the conclusion of the trial. The host of the Halloween party, where Kezer allegedly argued with Lawless, came forward after Kezer was convicted to say the witness was mistaken. She identified the person who argued with Lawless as someone else.

In Cole County Circuit Judge Richard G. Callahan's decision to release Kezer, he wrote that Hulshof misrepresented the evidence at trial:

"At the end of his closing, Mr. Hulshof summed up as follows: (Kenny Hulshof, original trial) You aren't just 12 individuals, you represent those people and you represent the small community down the interstate, in Benton, Missouri, and those people are looking to you for justice, ladies and gentlemen. You are our only hope. We put him at the scene, we put a gun in his hand, we put the victim with him, we have got blood on his clothes. Ladies and gentlemen, based on all of this evidence, I urge you to find this defendant guilty of murder and armed criminal action. We now know that none of what Mr. Hulshof said in that final summary was true," Callahan wrote.

Hulshof did not return phone calls requesting interviews. On Feb. 23, he did give an interview on the Mark Reardon show on KMOX 1120 NewsRadio, his only interview concerning the topic since Kezer's release, according to The Poston Report.