Like a lot of people, I spent some recent days binge-watching the Netflix original series “Making a Murderer,” a 10-part documentary about Steven Avery. Avery was wrongfully convicted of a rape, released 18 years later after DNA evidence proved his innocence, and then ended up accused of a heinous murder.
In spite of how one feels about the documentary’s neutrality, the show raises serious questions over how our justice system works, and how our media risk their objectivity in the service of a prosecutor’s agenda.
As I watched the show, I couldn’t help but think of how much Steve Avery reminds me of Bryan Sheppard.
Bryan is currently serving a life sentence for a 1988 arson that caused the deaths of six Kansas City firefighters. The tragic deaths shocked our Kansas City community, and law enforcement promised to catch the killers. Justice would be served.
But the case went unsolved for nearly a decade. Then suddenly in 1995, a sensationalized episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” aired, telling the story of the “cold-blooded murder” of Kansas City’s finest and ended with a call for any tips and a reminder of the $50,000 reward for information leading to arrests of the killers.
Around that time an article in The Kansas City Star quoted an investigator suggesting that suspects had probably come from the nearby Marlborough neighborhood to the blast site to steal tools. Investigators placed the reward posters in prisons and jails throughout Missouri — a possibly unprecedented tactic.
Nearly overnight, tips came pouring in, including many from convicted felons serving time. From all of the accusations and tips, investigators pieced together an official narrative and brought charges against five Marlborough residents, including Bryan Sheppard.
Like Steven Avery, Bryan was from the wrong side of town. Poor, uneducated, born into a family of thieves and addicts, Sheppard didn’t exactly possess the character qualities our society values. But he did have an alibi and witnesses, and there was not a shred of physical evidence connecting him to the crime. The only evidence against him was testimony from witnesses, nearly all of whom stood to benefit from accusing Bryan and his co-defendants.
Over the last few weeks the American public has been captivated by Steve Avery’s case, even to the point of circulating a petition for the White House to grant him clemency. I understand that public opinion cannot and should not drive actions of our justice system. And yet, what are people to do with this newfound knowledge of and frustration toward the possible injustices in our nation’s only justice system?
One option is to turn our attention to local miscarriages of justice. Learn about other cases such as those handled by the Midwest Innocence Project.
Another is to simply read and learn. From my experience, the more you learn about Bryan Sheppard’s case, the more questions arise that beg better answers than what the government’s official narrative provides. For instance, if the government as recently as 2011, prompted by stories in The Star, publicly acknowledged that two other individuals have been identified as suspects in the deaths of the six firefighters, why have no charges been filed? Why are two suspected killers still free?
The public deserves better answers. We just need to raise our voices, ask the right questions and keep asking them.
Andrew Johnson is a community activist, nonprofit leader and freelance writer. He lives in Kansas City.
Case on stage
A theatrical version of the 1988 firefighters case will bring a new perspective in February. “Justice in the Embers,” a production of StoryWorks KC is a project of KCPT, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Living Room Theatre, 1818 McGee St. The play is based in part on reporting by Mike McGraw, formerly of The Star. Performances begin Feb. 4. Tickets available via Eventbrite.