The Kansas City-based Midwestern Innocence Project announced Friday that it was launching an investigation into the case of five people convicted in the 1988 explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters.
"Our organization was set up to look for injustices in the criminal justice system, and when we see potential injustices as glaring as those in this case, how can we refuse to take it?" said Jay Swearingen, executive director of the project.
Swearingen said recent articles in The Kansas City Star helped prompt the project to begin a review of records in an effort to determine whether the defendants were wrongly convicted and whether the project should petition for their release from prison.
While the firefighters’ investigation will be one of the project’s 300 cases, he said, "it is by far the largest and most prominent of those cases."
Swearingen estimated that the investigation would cost more than $250,000 — money the project currently does not have. But he said it would try to raise those funds "because it would be an injustice for us not to look into this case."
The announcement comes as the U.S. Department of Justice apparently continues a separate investigation requested last month by U.S. Attorney John Wood in Kansas City.
Wood, who asked for the inquiry following a June 29 article about the case in The Star, has referred all questions about that inquiry to the Justice Department in Washington. A department spokeswoman, Carrie Nelson, told the newspaper Friday that she was "not able to comment on this matter at this time."
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver also has expressed doubts about the case. Danny Rotert, a spokesman for Cleaver, said Friday that "we trust that the independent review requested by U.S. Attorney Wood is going forward."
Olathe lawyer Cheryl Pilate, who is on the board of the Innocence Project and represents one of the five defendants, said Friday that "the government’s investigation clearly bypassed important leads and ignored a great deal of critical evidence."
Pilate added that "we hope and anticipate that individuals with relevant information about the case will continue to come forward. We also hope the Department of Justice will publicly identify a contact person so that we can provide important information to those who are examining the prosecution’s case."
The convictions in the case came nearly eight years after the six firefighters died in an explosion on Nov. 29, 1988, ignited by arson fires at a highway construction site in south Kansas City. Killed in the blast were Gerald Halloran, Thomas Fry, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert McKarnin and Michael Oldham.
The explosion touched off one of the most far-reaching criminal investigations in Kansas City history that ultimately resulted in a federal trial that convicted Kansas Citians Frank Sheppard, Earl Sheppard, Bryan Sheppard, Darlene Edwards and Richard Brown. All are serving life sentences.
All five defendants have maintained their innocence. And all refused to testify against any of the others in return for shorter sentences.
"I thank God and am very grateful," said Virgie Sheppard, the mother of defendant Bryan Sheppard, when told of the Innocence Project’s announcement. "It’s been more then 10 years since I have held him outside prison walls."
Some members of the families of the firefighters also have expressed reservations about the guilty verdicts.
The Star’s ongoing investigation found up to 15 witnesses who said a federal investigator pressured them to lie in the case. Five of those witnesses who testified in the case admitted they lied to the federal grand jury that indicted the defendants or later at their trial.
Witnesses told The Star that excessive pressure often came from Dave True, now a retired agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which helped investigate the case. True has denied that he coerced or intimidated witnesses and has said, "There’s no question in my mind that the right people are in jail."
The federal prosecutor in the case, assistant U.S. attorney Paul Becker, also has insisted that none of his investigators used improper tactics.
Swearingen said that his organization — a nonprofit, tax-exempt group dedicated to innocence projects in six Midwestern states — would allocate money from a $10,000 grant from the Oklahoma City-based Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation toward the investigation.
He said that money would help pay for work on the case by students at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Law school students from UMKC and the University of Missouri in Columbia also could be involved in the investigation, Swearingen said.