After a jury convicted Richard Brown in 1997 for his role in the deaths of six Kansas City firefighters, Linda Peak says she lost faith in the judicial system.
Brown and four others were sentenced to life in prison for the 1988 crime, but Peak says today that Brown can’t be guilty, because she saw him standing in his front yard when he was supposed to be fleeing the scene.
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"I was shocked that he was convicted," said Peak, who testified in Brown’s defense.
An ongoing investigation by The Kansas City Star raises serious questions about the federal trial that convicted Brown and the others.
All the defendants had alibis, and the three given polygraph tests passed.
Witnesses have since recanted.
Evidence helpful to the defendants was never used by defense attorneys.
To be sure, the government called some highly credible witnesses. And they added an air of believability to a case that otherwise would have depended in large part on what some call "snitch testimony."
Even an appeals court judge found the evidence wanting. In 1998, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt agreed with the trial court judge that the evidence was weak.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Becker, who prosecuted the defendants and received a commendation from the Justice Department for his handling of the case, said that the trial did not answer all of his questions about the crime.
"We talked to hundreds of witnesses and there were over a hundred witnesses at trial. I am fairly certain, well, I am certain that this is what happened. But you always have questions," Becker said recently.
‘Nobody asked me’
Linda Peak had never met Richard Brown, but knew him by sight. She said she saw him standing — shirtless and shoeless — outside his family’s home just seconds after the pre-dawn explosions.
Peak later testified that she and her father went outside their home near 82nd Street and Brooklyn Avenue. She said Brown and his family were in their front yard and Brown yelled over asking, "What the hell just happened?"
Peak said she didn’t come forward with her story in order to help Brown or his family. "I did it because it was the truth. To this day, I know for a fact ... that he is in jail for something he didn’t do," she says.
Prosecutors tried to neutralize Peak’s testimony by pointing out that she didn’t see Brown until just after the second of two explosions. The implication was that the delay — about 40 minutes between the first and second blasts — could have given Brown time to get home from the crime scene. But Peak doesn’t buy it. For one thing, she said, she had been awake and looking out the windows since shortly after the first explosion. That’s when she said she saw Brown’s truck parked in the driveway — the same truck that other prosecution witnesses testified they saw in another location seconds after the first blast.
Asked why she didn’t offer that information at the trial, Peak said, "Nobody ever asked me."
Peak’s father, Bill Goff, an Army veteran, backed her story.
The four other defendants also had alibis.
Of the 100 government witnesses who testified, 59 gave damaging testimony about the defendants.
There was no physical evidence tying the defendants to the crime, and in most cases, those witnesses could testify only that the defendants claimed responsibility for the crime.
Of all the government witnesses, according to a Star analysis, 47 waited years to come forward, or changed their stories between the crime and the trial about eight years later.
While many prosecution witnesses have stood behind their testimony over the years, the testimony of many prosecution witnesses was fully or partly impeached by defense attorneys during the trial, the attorneys say.
For example, one prosecution witness said defendant Bryan Sheppard admitted involvement in the crime when the witness was visiting Sheppard at his home in the fall of 1989. But Sheppard was in jail at the time, a fact Becker eventually acknowledged during the trial.
When the defense cross-examined prosecution witness Virgil David Whitt, this exchange occurred:
Q: "You have lied to people before, haven’t you?
A: "Yes, I have."
Q: "You don’t have any problem lying to people to get things you want, do you?
A: "No, sir."
At least a dozen witnesses have partly or fully recanted their testimony at the trial or before the grand jury, or offered investigators information indicating that some of the defendants might be innocent.
Becker defended the witnesses, saying that the sheer number of them should outweigh any question about their credibility and make moot a few after-the-fact recantations.
Trial and error?
Despite the large number of witnesses in the case, documents show that many of them contradicted one another and that others never had an opportunity to tell the jury the whole truth.
Numerous witnesses put the defendants in different places at the same time, according to a Star analysis. They put Frank Sheppard in nine places at once; Bryan and Skip Sheppard, Darlene Edwards, and Richard Brown in three or four places at once.
Many witnesses also said they’d heard that other suspects -- people who were never indicted -- had admitted involvement in the crime.
But the jury never heard many of those statements.
Becker said the federal theory of the case simply relied on the defendants’ statements allegedly made to other people.
The Star’s inquiry also found that evidence helpful to the defendants was not used. For example, prosecution witness John Barchers told The Star that federal investigators wired him with a hidden microphone in an effort to get admissions in the case.
But Barchers said no admissions were made on tape.
Asked why a transcript of the recorded conversation was not turned over to defense attorneys, Becker said: "I can’t comment on that. Any and all exculpatory material was turned over to the defense."