Max and I rewarded ourselves for cleaning out the basement by going to a play, “Justice in the Embers,” in Kansas City. It tells the story of the court case regarding the explosion, now 27 years ago, that killed six firefighters in Kansas City. I remember hearing the story on the news. The fire causing the explosion was later determined to have been deliberately set, and police could not find any evidence to point to the arsonists.
Five suspects were eventually arrested. One of them was Bryan Sheppard, who was 17 years old at the time. They all claimed innocence, but they were tried and convicted; nine years after the incident, they were all sentenced to life in prison, even though no real evidence supported the jury’s verdict.
The case began making headlines again recently because of a series of Supreme Court decisions concerning sentencing juveniles. The Court had decided that a juvenile could not be sentenced to either death, or life in prison without parole. In the newest case, decided a couple of weeks ago, the Court decided that those decisions should be applied retroactively to anyone who, as a juvenile, had already been sentenced to life in prison or death.
“Justice in the Embers” is a collaboration among Kansas City Public Television (KCPT), the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Storyworks, which “creates immediate artistic responses to some of the most controversial and challenging issues our society faces.”
Retired Kansas City Star reporter Mike McGraw, who now works for KCPT, wrote a series of 20 investigative articles about the case over a period of 10 years, and as he said, “(he doesn’t) know what happened up there … But (he does) know this: The … same federal government that imprisoned five people for life in the case has acknowledged that it never fully solved the crime. And they show no interest in finishing the job.”
The play, by Michelle T. Johnson, focuses on three intriguing puzzles: 1) no physical evidence tied any of the defendants to the fire; 2) an investigation implicated two people “of interest” who had never been interviewed; and 3) the jury heard testimony from several questionable witnesses, including “jailhouse snitches,” witnesses who later recanted their testimony, and people who split a $50,000 reward for information on the case.
The story is told through the dialogue of two fictitious prison guards, one of whom believes the defendants were unjustly convicted, and one of whom believes, because of his family ties with police and firefighters, that the men are guilty, although he, like the jury, bases his opinion on little concrete evidence. Therein lies the drama.
I caution people not to make judgments without hearing all the evidence, but this case just seems wrong. I became more skeptical when I learned the prosecutor in the case told McGraw that “the trial did not answer all his questions about what happened up there that night.” To me, that statement indicates reasonable doubt.
Further, even though McGraw’s investigation has turned up additional evidence, the Court has refused to give the prisoners a new hearing on that evidence.
I left the theater frustrated with the justice system as a whole. Certainly the deaths of those firefighters in one event are tragic, and justice for their families is important. On the other hand, justice does not occur if the wrong persons are convicted and those actually responsible are not convicted.
It seems that in this case, the prosecution was looking for a conviction rather than the truth. In our justice system, the accused is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That means that substantive questions, such as the ones the prosecutor still has, cannot remain after a person is convicted.
For Bryan Sheppard, though, things are looking up. The Supreme Court’s last decision regarding juveniles, which came down Jan. 26, means he can be re-sentenced. Cyndy Short, a friend and colleague of Max’s, said she will sometime this year argue for his release, or at least for a reduced sentence. Unsettlingly, the other three defendants – one died in prison – regardless of new evidence, have no chance for another hearing, which truly leaves “Justice in the Embers.”
Deborah Mitchell is a a local attorney and a Municipal Court Judge.