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Keith Carnes

Other Missouri Exonerations
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Just after 8:30 p.m. on October 6, 2003, police in Kansas City, Missouri, were called to investigate a report of a shooting. Officers arrived at the parking lot of the Fish Town restaurant near East 29th Street and Prospect Avenue in southeast Kansas City and found 24-year-old Larry White bleeding from four gunshot wounds, including one to the head. He died later that night at a hospital.

The officers secured the crime scene and then began canvassing the area in an attempt to find witnesses. A block west of the parking lot, nearly 700 feet away, officers found 12 shell casings strewn on the porch and around a house at 2846 Wabash Ave. An additional casing was found on the other side of Wabash, perhaps 100 feet closer to White’s body.

On October 7, 2003, the police obtained a search warrant for an apartment building at 2404 East 29th Street, two houses west of the Wabash Avenue address. They found a Norinco MAK-90 rifle, an AK-47-style weapon, wrapped in a towel in a freezer.

Firearms testing would later report that the shell casings found on the street had been fired from that weapon. Gary Kitchen was the rifle’s owner. He lived elsewhere with Reginald Thomas, a drug dealer who operated out of the apartment building.

The investigation led the police to three women whom others said might have witnessed the shooting. Although Lorianne Morrow initially told police that she didn’t recognize the men chasing after and shooting White, she gave a statement to police on October 12 that said 23-year-old Keith Carnes, known as “Tre,” had shot White because White was selling drugs on Carnes’s territory.

Morrow said that she was near the corner of Olive Avenue and 29th Street, a house or so west from where the rifle was found, when she heard Carnes holler at White, then fire three shots from a long black gun. White began running east, toward the restaurant, yelling that he was going to die. Morrow said White collapsed in the parking lot, where “Tre rolled him over then shot him some more, probably five more times.” Morrow said Kitchen was with Carnes, holding a smaller gun, but she never saw Kitchen fire the weapon.

Wendy Lockett gave a statement on October 13. Like Morrow, Lockett said that Carnes had shot White because White was selling drugs in the wrong place. She also said that Carnes had shot White in the head in the Fish Town parking lot. Lockett’s statement did not mention Kitchen. Instead, she said that Carnes was joined by Damon Rhodes and Mitchell Powell, who were both armed, although she said she didn’t see either of them fire their weapons.

Felicia Jones also gave a statement identifying Carnes as the shooter.

At the time of the shooting, Carnes wore a patch over his left eye. In their initial statements to police, neither Morrow nor Jones had mentioned this distinctive feature.

Police arrested Carnes on October 16, 2003, and charged him with first-degree murder and one count of armed criminal action.

After his arrest, Carnes was appointed a public defender named Jeff Griffin. Separately, Thomas told Kevin Carnes that his brother needed another lawyer. Accompanied by Kevin Carnes, Thomas paid attorney Mark Forest $2,000 to represent Carnes.

On October 30, 2003, Forest picked up 169 pages of discovery in the case. A few weeks later, on December 3, 2003, Kansas City police interviewed Thomas about the White murder. It’s not clear whether Thomas was a suspect, but police read Thomas his Miranda warnings. During the interview, Thomas told police that he had read the discovery file, part of which implicated him and Carnes in the shooting. Thomas then gave a statement to police that implicated Carnes.

In early 2004, Griffin withdrew from the case. Forest did as well, and Willis Toney began representing Carnes.

After a three-day trial in Jackson County Circuit Court, a jury convicted Carnes of murder and criminal action on April 20, 2005. Prior to sentencing, the conviction was overturned after Toney filed a motion that said Lockett’s testimony should have been excluded because the prosecution failed to make her available to the defense prior to trial and that she had testified without warning.

Carnes’s second trial, which began in November 2005, was a bench trial before Senior Judge Gene Martin.

Lockett and Morrow were again the state’s two key witnesses. Morrow testified that she was talking with White at the corner of Olive Avenue and 29th Street when she saw Carnes and Kitchen come out of the apartment building at 2404 East 29th Street and begin chasing White down the street. Three shots were fired. Morrow testified she later saw White face down in the parking lot and watched as Carnes turned him over and shot him five or six times in the head point-blank with an AK-47-style rifle.

In her statement to police, Morrow had said she heard but didn’t see the shooting in the parking lot. Under cross-examination, Morrow was asked how she knew about the shell casings found on the porch and the yard of the house a block away at 2846 Wabash Avenue. She did not have an explanation.

Lockett also testified and said she first saw White get shot outside the apartment building. After the initial shots were fired, Lockett testified, she ran north, then wound her way east through backyards and alleys, in the direction White headed. She ended up in a church parking lot across the street from the Fish Town lot. She said she saw Carnes shoot White in the parking lot, only recognizing him after he turned around and she saw the eyepatch.

In contrast to Morrow’s testimony, Lockett said that Carnes never turned White over before firing the shots. In addition, Lockett’s statement to police about the men with Carnes wasn’t true. Rhodes had an alibi for the time of the shooting; video footage showed him cleaning a bank building in the suburbs.

Jones testified that she could not recall making any statement to the police. Prosecutors were then allowed to introduce a statement Jones made to police on October 14, 2003. In that statement, Jones said that Carnes was joined by Powell during the shooting, and that Powell fired at White from the apartment building where the rifle was found. She also said that Thomas had told some other men in that building to make White “disappear.” No shells were found near that building.

There was no physical or forensic evidence connecting Carnes to the murder. The medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Gill, testified that White was shot four times, with the fatal shot entering his head above the right ear and leaving on the left side just above the hairline. He said the wounds were caused by a rifle, and that the lack of stippling on White’s body indicated the weapon was at least 24” away at the time it was fired. He was not asked whether White would have been able to run from the house on Wabash to the parking lot after being shot in the head.

An officer testified that no shell casings were found in the parking lot, and there were no disturbances in the asphalt caused by gunshot.

Marva Gray testified that she was working as a cashier at Fish Town on October 6, 2003. She said she heard gunshots down the street but not in the parking lot.

Carnes did not testify, but a woman named Vernetta Bell testified that she saw Carnes just after the shooting started. She said he ushered her inside to safety and that he was not holding a gun. Carnes “was up there peeking like everybody else,” she said.

During closing arguments, Prosecutor Dawn Parsons said that the testimony of Morrow, Lockett and Jones might have been contradictory in places or disproved by the physical evidence, but the women were clear about one thing: the shooter had an eyepatch.

“Now the interesting thing about the defendant, and I think the most important key piece of evidence, is the defendant’s unique identifying characteristic,” Parsons said. “He has a patch. He’s the only drug dealer in that area that has a patch ... He’s probably the only drug dealer in Kansas City with an eye patch ... All of these women went to the defendant, the drug dealer with an eye patch.”

Martin convicted Carnes of first-degree murder and armed criminal action on March 10, 2006, and later sentenced Carnes to life in prison without parole.

Separately, Kitchen had pled guilty to a federal gun charge tied to his possession of the murder weapon and was sentenced to 63 months in prison.

Carnes began a series of appeals through the Missouri Courts. His first appeal claimed there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction and that contraband seized at his house constituted impermissible evidence of “other bad acts.” The Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on October 2, 2007.

Carnes’s second appeal claimed that Toney had provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Carnes’s girlfriend had retained Gary Rini, an expert on crime-scene reconstruction, but Toney didn’t call him as a witness. Rini’s report, produced after the bench trial, said the evidence in the parking lot didn’t line up with the eyewitness testimony about the shooting. Rini presented his findings at an evidentiary hearing, but the appeal was rejected, and the Western District Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling on November 8, 2011.

Susan Hogan, a public defender, represented Carnes during that second appeal. After she filed the appeal, her investigator found a document in the police department’s master file about a statement made to police by an unnamed female witness on October 7, 2003. The woman said she had seen the shooting, but her statement gave no detailed description of the gunmen, including any mention of an eyepatch. This document hadn’t been disclosed to Carnes, but Hogan told him that court rules didn’t allow it to be added to his appeal.

On March 30, 2012, Carnes filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. While he repeated many of the claims from his state appeals, Carnes also said that prosecutors had failed to turn over the statement from the unnamed witness and that based on comparing the statement to trial testimony and deposition material, it was his belief that Lockett was the unnamed witness. In addition, Carnes said Morrow had recanted her testimony against him in a telephone conversation in 2011. But Morrow never gave Carnes an affidavit, and he was unable to get a recording of the conversation through the prison telephone system.

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Phillips denied Carnes’s petition on July 30, 2012, ruling in part that the claim of undisclosed evidence needed to be addressed in state court.

In 2014, Latahra Smith began investigating Carnes’s case. She later became a licensed private investigator and formed an organization called the KC Freedom Project that advocates for persons believed to be wrongfully convicted. Also in 2014, Smith obtained affidavits from Morrow and Lockett, each saying that the women testified falsely against Carnes. Morrow said she had initially said that Thomas was the shooter, but Prosecutor Amy McGowan, who did not participate in the trial, pressured her to implicate Carnes and later fed her information about the shell casings found at 2486 Wabash Avenue. Morrow said in the affidavit that Thomas was in the courtroom when she testified, and she feared retaliation if she told the truth.

In her affidavit, Lockett said she was high on cocaine at the time of the shooting and couldn’t make an identification. She also said that McGowan pressured her to testify falsely against Carnes, threatening her with repeated arrests if she didn’t cooperate.

Smith also tracked down two witnesses who were at the apartment building when White was shot. Eugenia Burch and Kermit O’Neal each stated that Carnes was with them at the apartment building but never left the building or chased after White.

Separately, Smith also found that Toney had represented Thomas in a felony-drug case in rural Missouri in 1997. Because Thomas was a potential alternate suspect, this was a potential conflict of interest.

Now represented by Kent Gipson and Taylor Rickard, Carnes filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus in DeKalb County Circuit Court on February 14, 2017. The petition was denied on August 14, 2017, and the appeal was denied a month later, on October 4, 2017.

Three years later, on September 17, 2020, Carnes filed his habeas petition with the Missouri Supreme Court, which appointed Judge William Hickle as special master to hear evidence and issue findings of fact. Hickle held an evidentiary hearing on September 23-24, 2021.

At the hearing, Morrow apologized to Carnes for her false testimony. She said that Thomas killed White, and she was scared to tell the truth.

“This man did not do this,” she said. “And I’m tired of this. I’ve been waiting so long for somebody to come and talk to me. I never had anybody else to come talk to me about this, not even his lawyer that he had at the time. Because I was thinking that he was gonna – he said, ‘Well, I'm going to come back and ask you this question, how did you know that the shell casing was on the porch?’ I couldn’t see the shell casing on the porch because of where I was going.”

At the hearing, Lockett took back her recantation and said her trial testimony was the truth. She also said her affidavit had been notarized outside of her presence. But other testimony contradicted that assertion. In addition, evidence at the hearing showed that Lockett had testified falsely about her personal life in a pre-trial deposition, claiming to be a licensed cosmetologist employed at a salon. The salon’s owner said Lockett never worked for her, and Lockett admitted she was not licensed.

The hearing also confirmed Carnes’s suspicions about Lockett. She was a confidential informant for the police department and the unnamed witness in the report from October 7, 2003. Officer Vernon Huth, who took her statement, said that he would have entered a more detailed description or other pertinent information if Lockett had provided it. After the hearing, the state would file an affidavit from Huth, which said that he did not actually question witnesses in homicides but simply documented information to give to more senior officers.

Arthur Mitchell, a firearms consultant, testified that Lockett’s testimony about the location of the initial shots was at odds with the physical evidence. He said that a Norinco rifle ejected casings 6-10 feet from the weapon, but no casings were found near 2404 East 29th Street. Separately, Mitchell conducted a re-enactment of a life-sized model of a head being shot at close range with a rifle in a parking lot. In that re-enactment, Mitchell said, the asphalt under the head “was blown apart,” and the wound in the head picked up asphalt from the shell’s rebound. None of this type of evidence was found at the crime scene or in the autopsy.

Smith, the private investigator, testified at the hearing that Kitchen told her in 2017 that Thomas shot White with Kitchen’s rifle. She said that Kitchen, who died of an overdose just before the 2021 evidentiary hearing, was bitter because of the prison sentence he received for the weapons conviction.

Thomas testified at the hearing. He admitted dealing drugs, but denied killing White, and he also denied implicating Carnes in his interviews with the police.

Several witnesses who didn’t testify at the bench trial testified at the evidentiary hearing that Carnes was not involved in the shooting. In addition, another witness testified that he heard the shot and then saw White stumble into the Fish Town parking lot and fall to the ground. The witness said he used binoculars to watch the scene unfold, and that White lay undisturbed until the police arrived.

In a filing after the hearing, Carnes’s attorneys said the failure of the state to turn over Lockett’s initial statement represented two separate disclosure problems. The first was that the statement was at odds with her testimony. The second was that Lockett was a confidential informant for the police, which would have undermined her credibility as an impartial witness.

Hickle issued his findings of fact on February 10, 2022. He found Morrow’s recantation and her testimony at the hearing to be credible, while Lockett’s testimony he considered to be at odds with the evidence. Hickle said Mitchell’s report undermined the trial testimony, and that the new witnesses supported Carnes’s claims that he did not shoot White. Hickle did not find that prosecutors acted improperly or threatened any of the witnesses, and he said that he did not find evidence that prosecutors knew about Lockett’s initial statement.

But Hickle said that Lockett’s first statement to police, made as a confidential informant, was not disclosed to the defense. He said the state’s attempt to downplay the officer’s lack of description in the statement, by reducing Huth’s role to one of a stenographer, lacked credibility.

On April 5, 2022, the Missouri Supreme Court accepted Hickle’s report and granted Carnes’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In a two-page order, the court said the state’s failure to disclose exculpatory evidence violated Carnes’s right to a fair trial. The court vacated his conviction and ordered his release from prison unless the state chose to retry Carnes.

The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the case on April 8, 2022. It said in a statement that its review did not establish Carnes’s innocence, but rather that the evidence was insufficient to prove his guilt. The statement also acknowledged that prosecutors failed to provide Lockett’s statement to Carnes’s trial attorney. “We agree that this violated Carnes’ right to a fair trial. Jackson County takes this finding with the utmost seriousness.”

Because of a paperwork problem, Carnes was not released from prison until April 11, 2022. “Knowing that I was innocent and didn’t do it, I wasn’t as stressed as some people would be,” he said. “So I just stayed grounded with God, and that kept me kind of peaceful. I knew that one day he’d come through.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/20/2022
Last Updated: 4/20/2022
State:Missouri
County:Jackson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Other Violent Felony
Reported Crime Date:2003
Convicted:2005
Exonerated:2022
Sentence:Life without parole
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:33
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No