Defendant in KC firefighter deaths will get a chance to argue his sentence

02/06/2014 10:31 AM

02/06/2014 10:31 AM

One of the four remaining defendants serving life terms in the 1988 explosion deaths of six Kansas City firefighters will get a chance to argue for a reduced sentence.

The office of U.S. Attorney Tammy Dickinson agreed in a brief filed late Wednesday that Bryan Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the explosion, deserves a chance to make his case before a federal judge.

Sheppard and his attorney sought the re-sentencing hearing under a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Sheppard was the only one of the five people convicted in the 1997 trial in the case who was a juvenile at the time of the crime. One of the other defendants died in prison.

“We were pleased to learn today that Bryan would be given an opportunity to return to court,” said his attorney Cynthia Short. She added the hearing will give Sheppard a chance to “ask the court to consider factors that were not considered at the time of his original sentencing.”

Sheppard’s re-sentencing hearing, expected to occur before U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan, could open the door — for the first time in the 17 years since the trial — for a federal judge to hear new evidence in one of the city’s most notorious crimes.

It is not clear whether evidence of actual innocence will be allowed at the re-sentencing hearing.

The government argued in its filing Wednesday that evidence should be limited to arguments related to his being a minor at the time he was sentenced to life in prison.

Attorneys for some of the other defendants have long argued, however, that new evidence in the case raises serious questions about the convictions of all five defendants.

Attorney Cheryl Pilate, who represents Darlene Edwards, one of the other defendants, said at a 2012 news conference that new evidence “casts very grave doubts on the government’s case.”

Pilate said Wednesday she was pleased that the case is going back to court.

“While we understand that a re-sentencing hearing in no way bears on a jury’s verdict, it does provide an opportunity for consideration of facts that bear on whether justice was done,” she said.

Marion Germann, a retired battalion chief and the only firefighter still alive who was on the explosion site at the time, has told The Star that he supports reopening the case because he knows some prosecution witnesses did not tell the truth.

Germann said Wednesday he remains uncomfortable about whether the right people went to trial.

A 2011 U.S. Department of Justice investigation, prompted by stories in The Star, acknowledged that other people who were never prosecuted — and who were not named in the report — were also involved in the crime along with the defendants.

Dickinson has declined to say whether she intends to pursue those new defendants.

In the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1988, firefighters Thomas Fry, Gerald Halloran, Luther Hurd, James Kilventon Jr., Robert D. McKarnin and Michael Oldham were killed instantly while fighting a fire in a construction trailer parked near the site of a U.S. 71 widening project.

The trailer, which contained 25,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil, erupted in a massive explosion that ignited a second explosives trailer and was felt for miles, cracking foundations and rupturing gas lines.

The explosion touched off one of the longest and most far-reaching criminal investigations in Kansas City history.

Nearly nine years later, the five defendants were indicted and convicted in a federal jury trial. One of them, Skip Sheppard, died in prison in 2009.

All the defendants have long denied involvement in the crime.

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