The U.S. Department of Justice should impanel a grand jury to re-investigate the “wrongful convictions” of five people in the 1988 arson and explosion deaths of six Kansas City firefighters, attorneys for the defendants said Thursday.
Local attorney Cheryl Pilate and Laura O’Sullivan, legal director for the Midwest Innocence Project, which represents two of the original defendants in the case, said they would release new developments at a news conference Friday. All of the defendants were sentenced to life in prison.
A U.S. Department of Justice investigation prompted by stories in The Kansas City Star said last year that others in addition to the defendants were involved in the arson and explosion that killed firefighters Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham.
The federal investigation, only portions of which were released to the public, said “several newly developed pieces of information, not previously known to the prosecution,” suggest that other people, who were never prosecuted, “may have been involved in the arsons.”
Justice Department officials said at the time, however, that the new evidence did not exonerate the five people convicted in the arson. Any new suspects, investigators said, would have committed the crime along with those found guilty at a 1997 trial.
Investigators did not explain why the defendants, who have served more than 17 years and always have maintained their innocence — would have failed to tell authorities that they had accomplices.
But attorneys for the defendants said they now believe the new evidence they will reveal Friday “points completely away from those defendants and toward others who were not adequately investigated.”
Those convicted in the case were Frank Sheppard; his brother Skip Sheppard (who died in prison in 2009); their nephew Bryan Sheppard; his best friend, Richard Brown; and Frank Sheppard’s girlfriend, Darlene Edwards.
Pilate and the Midwest Innocence Project, who are working together on the case, said they will be asking members of the public who have additional information about the case to contact them.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri said late Thursday that Pilate made several presentations regarding new evidence in the case to the office last year. But it added that “none of the information Ms. Pilate has presented … to date indicates that the defendants in the firefighters case were wrongly convicted.”
“In this case, as in every case, the United States Attorney’s Office remains willing to receive and review any information from Ms. Pilate or others regarding the 1988 firefighters case and encourages anyone with relevant information to step forward and contact federal law enforcement.”