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To better serve justice, Missouri prosecutors collaborate to determine best practices

Updated: 2013-12-31T03:29:35Z

By GLENN E. RICE

The Kansas City Star

When Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd talks about how prosecutors across Missouri could share ways to do their jobs better, the name Ali M. Mahamud stands out.

Four years ago, Mahamud was convicted of second-degree murder after he stabbed and cut his victim 54 times and then dumped the body in a creek. Zahnd wanted Mahamud convicted of first-degree murder, but jurors decided otherwise.

The foreman later told Zahnd the jury may have returned a first-degree verdict had they been able to see the defendant’s entire police videotape interrogation, with its extra evidence, rather than a portion of it. Police videotaped only a portion of their interview with Mahamud, Zahnd said.

That and other criminal cases prompted prosecutors at the time to lobby state lawmakers to adopt a law that would require investigators to record interviews of suspects who are accused of committing dangerous crimes.

Now, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has created committees to develop best practices and examine ways prosecutors and law enforcement could improve their crime-fighting efforts.

“Contrary to what is seen on television, county prosecutors aren’t about getting convictions at all costs,” said Zahnd, who is the group’s immediate past president. “We care deeply about not only convicting the guilty but protecting the rights of everyone, including the criminal defendants.”

Two recent criminal cases challenged the way police and prosecutors performed their jobs, he said.

Last month, the Missouri attorney general’s office announced it would not seek to retry 29-year-old Ryan Ferguson for the murder of a Columbia newspaper editor more than a decade ago. In the previous month, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker was appointed special prosecutor to review sexual assault allegations in Maryville, Mo., after prosecutors there dismissed charges and created a public uproar.

“This initiative is about prosecutors and our law enforcement partners doing their jobs in the best way possible,” Zahnd said. “While the criminal justice system does a very good, but not perfect, job now of ensuring that only the truly guilty are convicted and the innocent are exonerated, this initiative will help us do those things even better.”

Among other tasks, the various subcommittees will look at how county prosecutors can better handle forensic evidence, eyewitness testimony, the use of jailhouse informants, recorded interrogations and how to pursue death penalty cases.

Other subcommittees will offer recommendations on handling cases that involve children, the elderly, drunken driving, child-support collection, domestic abuse and sex crimes.

The practice of drawing blood from suspected drunken drivers and the use of DWI courts are examples of how prosecutors should share ideas to tackle certain crimes, said Cass County Prosecutor Teresa Hensley, who leads the association’s DWI and traffic-safety practices committee.

“If someone is doing something completely different that is better than what we are doing, then I am open to that,” Hensley said. “That is our goal, and it ought to be the goal of all prosecutors across the state.”

To reach Glenn E. Rice, call 816-234-4341 or send email to grice@kcstar.com.

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