Joshua Kezer is exonerated of the 1992 murder of Angela Mischelle Lawless
Bridget DiCosmo-SE Missourian-Cape Girardeau, Missouri
Last March, when asked how he'd react if ever cleared of the murder conviction that's kept him in prison for nearly 15 years, Joshua C. Kezer said he didn't know what his emotions would be like.
"I'd like to think I'd take a moment to stop and praise God — when you get a miracle, shouldn't you take a minute to stop and thank the one who gave it to you?" he said.
For Kezer, that miracle came Tuesday, when Cole County Judge Richard G. Callahan declared him innocent of the 1992 murder of Angela Mischelle Lawless, exonerating him of the crime he's denied since his arrest in 1993 at the age of 18.
"It's proof that God loves me, it's ... it's just off the chain," Kezer said during a phone interview Tuesday night.
Kezer, still emotional after hearing about the decision hours earlier from his attorneys, struggled to express himself.
"Wow," he kept saying. "Wow."
Kezer remained in the Jefferson City Correctional Center on Tuesday night, but will walk out of prison sometime within the next 10 days barring a decision by Scott County Prosecuting Attorney Paul Boyd to retry him on the second-degree murder and armed criminal action charges.
Boyd did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday as to whether he will make the decision himself or recuse himself, deferring to the Missouri State Attorney General's Office to make the call.
The attorney general's office has been handling the case since a motion alleging Kezer's wrongful conviction was filed last April.
Callahan's ruling came after a 60-day deliberation on evidence presented over three days of testimony in December, during which Kezer's attorney's argued he was innocent of the crime and key evidence that could have exculpated him was illegally kept from his original defense team.
"The Attorney General's Office has reviewed the decision by Judge Callahan, and the matter now rests in the hands of local prosecutors for assessment of the decision and underlying facts to determine what course of action — if any — should follow," said Travis Ford, spokesman for the attorney general's office.
In his opinion, Callahan cited more than 25 pages of key elements of the case that either show Kezer's innocence of the crime or involve suppressed evidence that could have changed a jury's verdict.
Among them were a police report showing an eyewitness identified someone other than Kezer as the man he saw near the crime scene the night Lawless was killed and a statement from the jailhouse informant who implicated Kezer saying he'd made up the story because he wanted a deal on his own charges.
Callahan criticized original prosecutor Kenny Hulshof, then an assistant with the attorney general's office, for mischaracterizing stains on Kezer's leather jacket as blood when he gave his closing argument.
A lab report Hulshof had access to at the time of trial showed the stains were not blood, and later testing revealed they were vegetable juice.
No other physical evidence linked Kezer to the crime.
Hulshof said he maintains Kezer was the right man for the crime.
"Today's opinion goes to great lengths to cast doubt on the credibility of the state's witnesses," Hulshof said in a prepared statement.
"But twelve jurors looked these witnesses in the eye, dispassionately listened to their testimony, and found them to be credible."
Hulshof remained confident in the jury's verdict, he said.
In his opinion, Callahan pointed out that the jury trial was meant to limit the power of prosecutors and judges to incarcerate someone.
"A jury trial is not a shield for prosecutors to avoid difficult charging decisions, and deference to a jury verdict is not a substitute for meaningful judicial review," Callahan wrote.
"In the final analysis, our system of trial by jury is there to protect citizens from its own government, not to protect government from its own mistakes."
The one "bright spot" in the case, Callahan said, was the decision of current Scott County sheriff to reopen the murder investigation in 2006.
Walter has said he did it because he felt there had been more people involved in the murder, but during the course of the investigation, found the case against Kezer began to crumble.
"I feel if the boy wasn't involved he doesn't need to be there — I would think everybody would want that," Walter said.
Walter said he spoke with Lawless' family after learning of the decision, and they indicated they "want the right person in prison for this."
In the meantime, Walter is still left with an unsolved homicide case, he said, though he said he is happy with the decision for Kezer's sake.
"I can't feel good just yet. I want to solve this murder," he said.
Charles Weiss and Steve Snodgrass, two of Kezer's attorneys from the Bryan Cave Law Firm, said they found Callahan's opinion to be strong. Weiss said the judge is a former prosecutor.
"We were elated, all this hard work, and Josh will hopefully get justice," Weiss said.
Weiss said he would be surprised if the state opted to retry Kezer.
"There's no credible evidence left," Weiss said.
Kezer's attorneys said they were unable to reach their client Tuesday morning when they attempted to call him at Jefferson City Correctional Center.
As luck would have it, Weiss and Snodgrass were meeting with Darryl Burton, who was released from Jefferson City Correctional Center last August after Callahan granted a similar motion to the one in Kezer's case.
Burton, who had been at a conference Tuesday, along with Kezer's attorneys, to discuss starting a Missouri innocence project, used contacts gleaned from 24 years in prison to help get a message to Kezer to contact his lawyers.
When his attorneys told him the news, he shouted out loud, Kezer said.
"We got everything we wanted," he said.
He said the prison officials offered him protective custody until his release, but he refused, choosing to spend the remainder of his prison time with friends.
Kezer, who turned 34 Monday, has been incarcerated since his arrest in 1993.
"Is this a birthday present or what?" said his mother, Joan Kezer.
Joan Kezer said she most looks forward to doing ordinary things with her son, trips to Wal-Mart, going out to eat, and "just having him home."