Suspect in five deaths makes court appearance

A man suspected of killing five south Kansas City residents appeared with his lawyers in a Jackson County courtroom Monday morning.

A Jackson County associate circuit judge ruled at the hearing that Brandon Howell be permitted to appear in some upcoming hearings in street clothes and without visible shackles.

Howell’s lawyers argued that such accommodations were necessary to protect his presumption of innocence, given the likelihood that potential jurors could see courtroom video or photographs of him.

Judge Mary Frances Weir denied a request from Howell’s lawyers, who had asked that any upcoming grand jury testimony in his case be recorded. State grand juries in Missouri do not routinely record such testimony with sound recording equipment or with court reporters.

After the hearing, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and her spokesman declined to discuss when grand jurors would hear the case.

Officially, Brandon Howell, 34, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the Sept. 2 shotgun slayings of Susan Choucroun, 69, Lorene Hurst, 88, and her son Darrell Hurst, 63.

Since authorities filed those charges, however, two other victims, George and Anna Taylor, have died. Prosecutors have said they are evaluating new charges, which could include dropping the assault charges in the Taylor beatings and replacing them with additional murder counts.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker also said recently that “all punishments are on the table,” signaling that she would consider seeking the death penalty for Howell.

In recognition of that possibility, Jackson County public defenders have assigned attorney Patrick Berrigan, a noted death penalty specialist, to represent Howell, along with Assistant Public Defender Curtis Winegarner.

Berrigan has represented accused killers in state and federal courts in Missouri and Kansas. His clients have included such notorious figures as Ray Copeland, Keith Nelson and John E. Robinson.

In 2000, Berrigan secured a life sentence for a Colombian man, Plutarco Tello, accused of being one of three hit men sent by a drug cartel to Kansas City to kill a man accused of stealing money from the traffickers.

Federal jurors voted unanimously for the death penalty for the other two killers. Lawyers credited the jury’s decision to spare Tello’s life to a trip Berrigan took to Colombia in which he videotaped 14 hours of statements from Tello’s family, explaining his working class upbringing and pleading for his life.

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to