Settlement Reached in Wrongful-Conviction Suit in Missouri

August 13, 2010

A man who spent nearly 16 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder has reached a settlement in a lawsuit filed against the southeast Missouri county that put him behind bars.

Terms of the settlement between Joshua Kezer, Scott County, and the county’s former law enforcement officers were not released.

A member of Kezer’s legal team confirmed the settlement Tuesday with the Southeast Missourian newspaper but says a judge must still finalize it. Both sides had been meeting with a federal mediator since early spring.

Kezer was convicted in the 1992 murder of 19-year-old nursing student Angela Mischelle Lawless. In February 2009, a judge ruled that key evidence was kept from Kezer’s defense attorneys during his initial trial. The judge exonerated Kezer.

Former Scott County sheriff Bill Ferrell, who directed the investigation of the Lawless murder, and former deputy Brenda Schiwitz were also named in the lawsuit.

“At this point, we’re just waiting basically for the check to clear and the case will be dismissed,” attorney Stephen Snodgrass told the newspaper. “We’re happy with the outcome. We’re happy for Josh that he’s going to be compensated for all he went through.”

Scott County Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger said he had no comment on the settlement, noting that the agreement had not yet been finalized.

Kezer, who was 17 at the time of Lawless’ death and living in Illinois, sought both compensation and punitive damages for his wrongful conviction and arrest, which were supported by false evidence, including statements made by four incarcerated men who said Kezer confessed to the crime. The men later recanted their statements.

He was convicted of Lawless’ murder in 1994, went to prison and was exonerated in February 2009 by Richard Callahan, who at the time was Cole County circuit judge. Callahan ruled that key evidence in the case was kept from Kezer’s defense attorneys during his initial trial.

The judge also criticized the courtroom conduct of former special state prosecutor Kenny Hulshof, who later served six terms in Congress and unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for governor in 2008.

Kezer, who now lives in Columbia, also declined to discuss the settlement.

Lawless was found dead in November 1992, insider her car on an Interstate 55 exit ramp just west of the Mississippi River. She was shot three times and suffered a blow to the head.

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