Ralph Wright was shot and killed during an armed robbery outside Sam’s Bargain Town department store in Kansas City, Missouri, on October 13, 1980. He was 78 years old. His wife, who had been loading groceries into the car, and their son witnessed the crime and described the perpetrators to police as three young black males, one of whom had a gun and wore a red shirt.
On the day of Wright’s murder, 25-year-old Shea Jackson, who lived in Colorado, was visiting his mother in Kansas City. Jackson was at Sam’s Bargain Town, located near his mother’s house, with his two younger brothers on the day of the crime. After the shooting, a classmate of Jackson’s brother contacted police to inform them that the three Jackson brothers had been at the store that day. Shea Jackson had reportedly been wearing a red shirt. The perpetrators had fled the crime scene in the direction of the Jacksons’ house.
The Jackson brothers were brought to Kansas City police headquarters for questioning on October 15, 1980. Shea Jackson agreed that he and his brothers had been at Sam’s Bargain Town on October 13, but he said that they had left before the shooting took place. Each of the brothers was placed in his own lineup. The victim’s wife and son separately identified each of the Jackson brothers as the perpetrators, with both witnesses identifying Shea Jackson as the shooter. These identifications provided police and prosecutors with seemingly strong evidence that Jackson had killed Ralph Wright.
Charged with Wright’s murder, Jackson had private defense attorney John Turner appointed to represent him. The Jackson County prosecutor offered Jackson a plea deal, but Jackson turned it down, insisting he was innocent. During Jackson’s trial in the Jackson County Circuit Court before Judge Paul Vardeman, Wright’s widow identified Jackson as her husband’s killer. There was no forensic evidence connecting Jackson to the crime. The jury convicted Jackson of murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison in August 1981. Available records do not show whether either of his brothers, one of whom was a minor, was convicted in the crime.
Following Jackson’s conviction, Turner filed an appeal but then changed employment, and Charles Atwell became Jackson’s attorney. He was an experienced criminal defense attorney and would later become a Jackson County Circuit Court judge.
While the appeal was underway, an investigator for the Jackson County prosecutor’s office, John P. O’Connor, received a tip from a jail inmate informing him that another man had killed Ralph Wright. According to this tipster, Robert E. Ross had shot and killed Wright with Curtis Townsell, who was a minor, and another accomplice.
Intrigued about this tip, O’Connor began looking into these three alleged perpetrators. O’Connor found mug shots for the three and saw that they resembled the three Jackson brothers. Together with Kansas City Police Detective Ed Glynn, O’Connor confronted Townsell, who soon confessed to the crime, describing in detail what happened. Townsell also named 26-year old Robert E. Ross as the shooter and confirmed that their accomplice was the other man identified by the tipster.
After receiving a search warrant, Kansas City police searched Ross’s house and found a gun with the same caliber as that used in Wright’s murder. The ballistics on the gun matched with those from the bullet that killed Wright.
Ross and the other accomplice soon confessed their involvement in the murder as well. The other accomplice was not charged in exchange for agreeing to testify against Ross, and Townsell was turned over to juvenile authorities.
O’Connor and the police took the confessions and the related new evidence to prosecutor Albert Reiderer, who informed Atwell of the developments. Atwell and Reiderer then worked together to have Jackson immediately released from prison pursuant to an emergency order signed by the Missouri Supreme Court justices on March 12, 1982. The charges against Jackson were dismissed soon after. “I ain’t no angel, but I ain’t no murderer and I don’t go around robbing people,” Jackson said after his release.
On September 30, 1982, Ross, who was already serving a prison sentence for burglary, pled guilty to manslaughter in Wright’s death. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.