On the morning of March 6, 2017, I gathered up all I had in my cell at the Leavenworth Detention Center — two decades’ worth of not a whole lot. My toothbrush, my shoes, my magazines and newspaper clippings.
I thought I had gathered everything. I was ready to leave my six-foot-wide cell behind and begin a new life as a man finally released from prison.
But on my way out the door, a guard handed me one more piece of mail that had just arrived that morning. It was a letter from someone whose name I knew well but had not yet met.
The letter was from Tracey Kilventon, the wife of James Kilventon. James’ father was one of the firefighters killed in the tragic explosion at a highway construction site in Kansas City in 1988. Four others and I had been convicted of starting the fire that caused the explosion. We were sentenced to life without parole. In spite of our claims of innocence and the complete lack of evidence connecting us to the crime, we had been in prison ever since.
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The only reason I was released from prison that morning in March was a recent Supreme Court ruling. I was 17 in 1988, and the court ruled it unconstitutional for minors to be given life sentences with no chance of parole. I was re-sentenced to time served, and three days later I walked out of my cell for the last time.
So when I opened that letter from the Tracey Kilventon, I didn’t know what to expect. It was almost more than I could handle. Some of the families of the fallen firefighters testified against me during the hearing. Some had spent the past two decades believing I was a cold-blooded killer. Some said their husbands and fathers did not get a second chance at life, so why should I?
Why should I get this chance? That’s a question that has haunted me every day since I walked out of that prison. Why should I enjoy the rest of my life while those six families continue to suffer? Why should I be released when my co-defendants remain behind bars, but are just as innocent as I am?
In her letter, Tracey Kilventon wrote that she and her husband believe that I am innocent. They wrote that they want to move on from this painful chapter in their lives, but could not live in peace if the wrong people were in prison. They told me that they want justice for the firefighters.
When we finally met in person a few months after my release, we shared tears and promised to channel our energy toward seeking justice together, both for the families of the six firefighters killed and for the families of those of us who were wrongfully convicted.
Last week I filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice, seeking the release of information the government has that will likely prove my innocence and identify the real culprits. At the root of this lawsuit is a memorandum from the department released in 2011. The document is heavily redacted, and the government cites privacy concerns as its justification for keeping key information about the case hidden from the public eye.
My attorneys and I have tried every way possible to get to the truth of this tragedy. It is very likely that somewhere beneath all that black ink, somewhere in those files, the government has kept the truth in its possession all of these years.
So why should I get this second chance? Why are the Kilventons willing to take a chance on me? Why would the Department of Justice choose to redact the truth?
Honestly, I don’t know why. But I do know what I must do. I must continue to fight for the truth to finally come out, and I hope that my community will join this fight. I may have been released, but I am not yet free.
Bryan Sheppard was released from prison for time served in March 2017 after serving 22 years for a 1988 arson fire that killed six Kansas City firefighters.