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Keith West

Other Kentucky exonerations
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On February 19, 1992, a car crashed into a tree in Louisville, Kentucky. Police found that the car’s two occupants had been shot in the back of the head. Twenty-seven-year-old Kevin Harraway was dead on the scene. Gerald White, a 24-year-old student activist at the University of Louisville, died a few hours later at the hospital.

The following day, police arrested 19-year-old Keith West and charged him with both murders.

West claimed he acted in self-defense after he realized that White and Harraway intended to kidnap and sodomize him. When the car sped up, West grabbed White, who was driving, around the neck and reached for a gun that was in the car. He said he shot them because he feared for his life.

The state sought the death penalty.

By the time West went to trial in February 1995, his defense lawyer, Jay Lambert, had uncovered misconduct by Louisville police detective Mark Handy, the lead investigator in the case.

Lambert determined that Robert Ross, who was at the scene after the car crashed, had been repeatedly questioned and coached by Handy to say that a hat found at the scene was worn by West. Handy had manipulated a cassette tape of the interview to tape over some of Ross’s comments. In attempting to delete the manipulation, however, Handy failed to erase all of his comments, which revealed his interrogation of Ross and fabrication of what he wanted Ross to say. However, Ross’s original statement was erased and the content of it was unknown to the defense.

In addition, although Handy had searched the car, he failed to collect a black purse that contained lubricant, condoms, multiple .38-caliber bullets, cleaning supplies, and an electrical cord. White’s mother had informed Handy that a .38-caliber revolver was missing from her home. Moreover, Handy had failed to note items that were found in the trunk when Lambert and a detective searched the car.

In the trunk was a document titled “Application for a Piece of Ass.” In addition, there was a pawnshop receipt detailing the purchase of a .38-caliber revolver, a 14-inch butcher knife, more bullets, a rope, and an advertisement for male homosexual pornography.

At the trial in Jefferson County Court, the prosecution contended that West intended to rob White and Harraway and when they resisted, he shot them. Handy testified that Ross identified the baseball hat found at the scene as like one that West wore. Handy said Ross did not testify because he was a fugitive and could not be found. In fact, Ross was in custody in jail just a few miles away on unrelated charges and could have easily been brought to court.

Ruth Bowie testified that she saw the car containing White and Harraway at a stop sign before the vehicle crashed. She said the car was stopped at the corner of Magazine and 19th Streets for three to five minutes before it pulled away.

The prosecution contended that Bowie’s testimony showed that West’s account was untrue.

On February 24, 1995, West was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. He was found not eligible for the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison.

In April 1996, West’s defense lawyers moved for a new trial after discovering that at the time Bowie testified, she was under indictment on drug charges brought by the Louisville police department. Bowie, the motion said, was the prosecution’s “most important witness when she testified that the car sat at the corner of 19th and Magazine for three minutes and the prosecutor used this testimony as the cornerstone of his theory that the defendant was not acting in self-defense, but was robbing White and Harraway.”

The motion also noted that the prosecutor, in closing argument not only spent “considerable time talking about Ruth Bowie’s testimony,” but also argued that Bowie’s testimony “completely” destroyed the defense’s argument that West was trying to protect himself. In addition, the motion said the prosecutor told the jury that Ruth Bowie was the defendant’s friend and she had no motive to lie.”

In July 1997, Judge Thomas Wine granted the motion, vacated West’s convictions, and ordered a new trial. The judge noted that the prosecutors, Steven and Rebecca Schroering, admitted they had not disclosed that Bowie was under indictment to West’s defense lawyers. The prosecutors justified their failure to disclose because they believed that Bowie, who was friends with West, was going to be a hostile witness and help the defense in any way she could.

The judge declared, “If we carry that logic one step further, if Ms. Bowie had stated to the Commonwealth or one of its representatives that ‘Mr. West did not commit the crime, I saw Joe Blow in the back seat of the car,’ the Commonwealth would not be required to turn that information over because she’s a hostile witness and we expect her to lie, so it’s not exculpatory evidence. This creates a dangerous situation where the Commonwealth makes a unilateral subjective decision not to divulge exculpatory information.”

The judge noted that at trial, Bowie had in fact amplified her pre-trial statement to police. Initially, Bowie said she saw the car at the stop sign for only a few seconds. At trial, she said she saw the car stopped there for three to five minutes. Information that could have been used by the defense—that Bowie was facing charges from the same prosecutorial office that was questioning her—to impeach that testimony was critical.

Instead of going to trial again, West agreed to enter an Alford plea to a charge of first-degree manslaughter. Under the terms of the plea, West did not concede his guilt, but admitted that the prosecution had evidence sufficient to convince a jury to convict him. On December 23, 1997, West was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released after fulfilling the term on October 30, 1998.

Subsequently, lawyers Amy Staples and Elliot Slosar of The Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago Law School began representing West in attempt to vacate his guilty plea.

In 2018, the lawyers filed a motion for a new trial that outlined Detective Handy’s misconduct in other cases in which defendants were wrongfully convicted. Handy had coerced Edwin Chandler to falsely confess to a 1993 murder and mishandled, concealed, and destroyed other evidence in the case that was favorable to Chandler. In addition, the convictions of Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Clark were vacated and the charges dismissed after Handy gave false testimony in their trial.

The motion said that in 2017, police had found the initial statements of Ross and Bowie. Both said that while they saw someone flee the scene after the car crashed, they did not know who it was and could not say it was West.

In 2018, Handy was indicted on a charge of perjury for giving false testimony in Chandler’s case and a charge of tampering with evidence in West’s case. (He attempted to plead guilty to the perjury charge in June 2020, but in October 2020, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens rejected the plea and scheduled trial for May 2021.)

In 2019, at a hearing on the motion to vacate West’s conviction, Bowie testified that she originally told police she only saw the car stopped at the stop sign for a few seconds. She said that in the hallway outside the courtroom during West’s trial, Handy told her to say that the car was stopped three to five minutes, and that was why she testified as she did.

Handy was called as a witness during the hearing, but he asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself and refused to answer any questions.

Kentucky Assistant Attorney General Jon Heck testified that Handy was no longer being called to testify in any case because he was a “detective who had a pattern, around that time, of taking statements that were either fed by him and false or he tinkered with…a tape recorder…So now I have a detective that plays with the tape recorder, re-tapes statements. I also have one that feeds false confessions to people who didn’t commit crimes and…I can’t be expected to put that witness on the stand.”

Former Louisville police Sgt. Denver Butler also testified that he had investigated Handy and concluded that West was wrongfully convicted as a result of Handy fabricating false evidence and withholding exculpatory evidence.

At the conclusion of the hearing, even though the prosecution did not call any witnesses, the motion to vacate West’s conviction was denied.

In November 2019, while the ruling was on appeal, Slosar and Staples filed a request with outgoing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin to grant West a pardon.

On December 9, 2019, Gov. Bevin granted West an unconditional pardon.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 1/20/2020
Last Updated: 10/13/2020
State:Kentucky
County:Jefferson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1992
Convicted:1995
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:19
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No