At 1:30 a.m. on November 8, 1992, Angela Lawless was found dead in her car, which was idling at the top of an exit ramp of Interstate 55 near Benton, Missouri.
She had been beaten and shot three times in the back of the head.
Lawless, a 19-year-old nursing student, was initially discovered by Mark Abbott, of Scott City, Missouri, who said he stopped to inspect the car on his way home from a night of drinking. He reached in and discovered blood and drove to a nearby gas station to call police. He said the pay phone was out of service and as he walked back to his truck, a white hatchback zipped into the station. He said he saw the driver’s face briefly and that he had a dark complexion and possibly was a Latino.
Abbott then drove to the Scott County sheriff’s department to report the crime.
Although physical and forensic evidence was collected at the scene including finger and palm prints, hair, and blood, the evidence did not lead to any arrests.
Then, in February, 1993, three inmates at Cape Girardeau County Jail told authorities that Joshua Charles Kezer, a 17-year-old high school dropout from Kankakee, Illinois, had admitted to them during a night of drinking that he killed Lawless.
About a week later, police interviewed Abbott (for the fifth time) and he changed his story slightly. Now he did not say the driver of the white hatchback might have been a Latino. He picked Kezer out of a photo lineup and Kezer was arrested on February 27, 1993.
Prior to trial, two of the jailhouse informants recanted to Kezer’s attorney, although they later recanted their recantations. Since Kezer could not afford new counsel, this evidence was never presented because it would have required his lawyer to be a witness and could not continue representing him.
The trial began on June 13, 1994. None of the physical evidence was linked to Kezer, although prosecutors did present small flecks of what could have been blood on Kezer’s jacket as evidence, though tests could not prove that it was blood. The case was built on the testimony of the jailhouse snitches and Abbott’s identification. During the trial, Lawless’s friend, Chantelle Crider, came forward to say that she believed she recognized Kezer as a man who argued with Lawless at a party the previous Halloween.
In his defense, Kezer presented alibi witnesses who said he was hundreds of miles away in his hometown of Kankakee. On June 17, 1994 Kezer was convicted by a jury in Cape Girardeau County Circuit Court of 2nd degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Immediately after trial the two hosts of the Halloween party approached police to say that Kezer had not been at the party. But this evidence was ignored. Other flaws in the case surfaced over time. A written recantation of one of the jailhouse informants that had been withheld from the defense was found. Another prisoner who shared a cell with the informants said that Kezer had never confessed. Notes that prosecutors said had been destroyed emerged and revealed that Abbott, the eyewitness, actually was a suspect in the murder.
Lawless’s journal and other friends pointed to another man who knew Lawless and had argued with her. A report that was withheld was found that said that Abbott had initially identified another man—who is black—as the attacker by name. Further, it revealed the conflict between the description Abbott initially and Kezer, who is white. Finally, DNA testing of blood recovered from under the fingernails of Lawless showed that it was not Kezer’s.
Scott County reserve deputy Rick Walter was the first law enforcement officer to reach the scene of the crime the night Lawless’ body was discovered. At the time, he believed that Lawless had been beaten some distance from the car, carried back and put inside and then shot. He had long harbored a suspicion that two persons were involved in the crime.
By 2006, Walter had been elected Scott County sheriff and he took an unusual step—he re-opened the Lawless case and ordered it re-investigated. At about the same time, Jane Williams, of Columbia, Missouri, visited the Jefferson City Correctional Center with her church group for an evening worship. She was struck by seeing Kezer as the only inmate on his knees during the service and took up Kezer’s claim of innocence.
Williams wrote a summary of the case that ultimately reached the Missouri committee of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Charlie Weiss, a St. Louis attorney who was a former president of the Missouri Bar Association, took over the case.
Walter’s re-investigation turned up an interview that Abbott gave to authorities in 1997—five years after the murder—in an attempt to get leniency for a narcotics conviction. In that interview, Abbott claimed for the first time that he was present when Lawless was killed. He claimed that a married friend of his who was having an affair with Lawless had quarreled with her and she had driven away.
Abbott claimed in the statement that he and the friend followed and caught up to her at the exit ramp where Abbott’s friend got out and ran to her car where they quarreled again and then there were gunshots.
His friend, Abbott said, fled on foot while he ran to the car, saw Lawless was bleeding and then decided to report the shooting to police.
Armed with that dramatic shift in Abbott’s account, as well as a recantation by Crider of her identification of Kezer, tests results that showed the substance on the jacket was tomato juice instead of blood, and another interview of Abbott in which he identified the driver of the hatchback as a black man from Sikeston, Missouri, a habeas corpus petition was filed in Cole County Circuit Court on April 2, 2008 alleging in part that the prosecutor, Kenny Hulshof, had withheld exculpatory evidence. On February 18, 2009 Judge Richard B. Callahan granted Kezer’s motion on the basis of misconduct by the prosecution and new evidence of innocence, the charges were dismissed, and Kezer was released the following day.
Kezer filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit that was settled in August 2010 for $4 million dollars, according to a news media account quoting sources familiar with the case. In 2011, Kezer used some of his settlement money to donate $10,000 to the sheriff’s office to be earmarked specifically for the continuing investigation to find Lawless’s killer.
— Michael S. Perry