Editorials

This Kansas prosecutor sent innocent people to jail. Why hasn’t she been disciplined?

Three dozen protesters recently demanded that Douglas County senior assistant prosecutor Amy McGowan be fired or step down.

While McGowan and her boss, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson shrugged off the demands, the protesters raised an important question: After playing a key role in sending innocent defendants to prison, why has McGowan never been disciplined or even investigated?

Twice, judges in Missouri have ruled that she withheld evidence that may have prevented innocent men from going to jail for crimes they did not commit.

Prosecutors have a duty to turn over any exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys, particularly evidence that could affect the outcome of a case. McGowan, who has worked as a prosecutor in Missouri and now Kansas, has failed miserably to uphold that responsibility.

Recently, a circuit court judge in DeKalb County, Missouri, found clear and convincing evidence that Ricky Kidd was wrongfully convicted of a 1996 double murder in Kansas City.

Days later, Kidd was released. He will not be retried, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said.

The judge found McGowan failed to disclose exculpatory evidence that was material to the outcome of Kidd’s case. That information included depositions from the actual killers that could have been used in Kidd’s defense.

“She should be disbarred,” Kidd told The Star’s Editorial Board this week.

In 2006, a Jackson County Circuit Court judge vacated the conviction of Richard Buchli II, a Kansas City attorney who was accused of killing his law partner.

The judge found that prosecutors, led by McGowan, purposely withheld evidence that would have cleared Buchli of wrongdoing. He spent five-and-a-half years in prison and lost his law license before he was fully exonerated in 2012.

An appeals court threw out Buchli’s 2002 murder conviction because prosecutors failed to disclose a building surveillance videotape that might have exonerated him. McGowan admitted in a court hearing that determining when Buchli left the building was significant to the state’s case. He was released from prison in 2008 and regained his law license in 2013.

Prosecutors are virtually immune from criminal prosecution. They can’t be sued and are rarely disbarred.

McGowan’s mistakes and misdeeds raise the question: Are there any consequences for a prosecutor’s indefensible actions?

Branson, McGowan’s current boss, referred The Star’s editorial board to a written statement and did not make McGowan available for comment.

In his statement, Branson said the criticism being leveled against McGowan is more than 20 years old. McGowan, he said, has never been convicted or disciplined by the Missouri or Kansas Supreme courts.

Branson is correct that the murder at the center of the Ricky Kidd case happened more than two decades ago. But it was only one month ago that Kidd was found innocent, bringing this grievous miscarriage of justice into sharp relief. The judge said in his August ruling that the state had withheld evidence in the case. Kidd paid the price, spending 22 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Branson has a duty to make sure the prosecutors in his office are upholding their oath. In multiple cases, McGowan has fallen short of that standard.

In 2013, the Kansas Supreme Court found McGowan made improper comments during closing arguments in five cases between 2007 and 2009.

In one instance, the court vacated a sentence in a child-exploitation case. Branson removed McGowan from major felony sex cases and reassigned her to other duties as a result.

At a minimum, chief counsels in both Kansas and Missouri should launch inquiries into McGowan’s professional conduct. An investigation into past cases prosecuted by McGowan also is warranted.

The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel oversees attorney discipline in Missouri. Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel says he can’t comment on, or confirm or deny, pending investigations. His counterpart in Kansas, Stan Hazlett, is bound by the same rules.

Sean O’Brien, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and one of Kidd’s defense attorneys, said a preponderance of evidence suggests both offices would be justified in opening inquiries.

“There are some prosecutors that, when I see their name, it raises a red flag,” O’Brien said. “Amy McGowan is one of those prosecutors.”

McGowan’s actions have cost two men their freedom. Her conduct in other cases has raised additional red flags.

How many more innocent people need to go to prison before an inquiry is launched?

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