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Witness perjury. Forgery. Evidence shared. Murder convict from KC deserves new trial

By The Kansas City Star Editorial Board September 17, 2020 05:00 AM ,

Keith Carnes, a former drug dealer, has long held that he is innocent of the 2003 murder that sent him to prison for life.

New evidence uncovered by defense attorneys and a private investigator working on behalf of the 50-year-old Kansas City man suggests he did not commit the crime.

In a 2006 bench trial, Jackson County Judge Gene R. Martin found Carnes guilty of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in the shooting death of 24-year-old Larry White, a rival drug dealer.

In a motion expected to be filed this week with the Missouri Supreme Court, attorneys for Carnes claim he is entitled to post-conviction relief and a new trial because he received ineffective counsel. They also say there is clear and convincing evidence that another man actually killed White.

No physical evidence tied Carnes to the crime, appeal attorneys argue. His right to a fair trial was violated when multiple people gained access to his case file in advance. And after he was convicted, one of his lawyers allegedly forged Carnes’ signature on court papers.

Willis Toney, Carnes’ trial attorney, allegedly signed his client’s name on a legal document known as a remedy to correct conviction, the motion alleges. A forensic expert hired by private investigator Latahra Smith concluded that the signature did not match Carnes’. Toney didn’t return multiple calls seeking comment.

“On petitioner’s form, the signature line shows a signature which appears to be ‘Kevin Carnes.’ After seeing this form years later, petitioner realized that he had never previously seen that document and was confident that he did not sign it,” attorneys wrote in the motion for a new trial.

Lawyer let another suspect see evidence

Even more shocking, another attorney, Mark Forest, allegedly gave another suspect in the murder — named in court papers as Reginald Thomas — access to the case file against Carnes before his trial.

Nearly five weeks after Forest received evidence in the case, court records indicate, Thomas was questioned by investigators with the Kansas City Police Department. He admitted that Forest had let him view the file, a clear violation of Carnes’ right to a fair trial.

“On October 30, 2003, Mr. Forest signed a Discovery Receipt Form at the prosecutor’s office for 169 pages of discovery in the case of ‘State of Missouri vs. Thomas, Reginald.’ Mr. Thomas’ name is crossed out on this form and ‘Keith Carnes’ is written in over the top of Mr. Thomas’ scrawled out name,” attorneys wrote in the brief filed with the Missouri Supreme Court.

Thomas allegedly paid Forest to represent Carnes to gain critical information that would exclude him as the perpetrator, according to court documents. When Forest made the request for discovery, he was no longer Carnes’ attorney of record.

Forest failed to return several calls seeking comment. In another twist, Toney once represented Thomas — a fact uncovered only after Carnes was convicted of murder.

“The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction,” defense attorney Kent Gipson told The Star Editorial Board. “You can’t make this (stuff) up.”

Multiple appeals filed on Carnes’ behalf have failed. One recourse would be a proposed investigation by a special master appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court. The court should expedite this request with urgency.

Two of the state’s witnesses against Carnes have recanted their testimony. One named Thomas as the actual shooter. She claimed in a sworn affidavit that she was scared the reputed drug dealer would retaliate against her.

The pair were coerced into identifying Carnes as the killer by then-Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor Amy McGowan, according to court documents. They later admitted to committing perjury during the trial.

Prosecutor McGowan’s history of misconduct

McGowan’s involvement raises even more doubts about Carnes’ guilt.

At least five convictions she prosecuted in both Kansas and Missouri have been overturned in recent years. In June, Alan Pratzel, the chief disciplinary counsel in Missouri, found probable cause that McGowan twice committed prosecutorial misconduct in the now-overturned murder conviction of Ricky Kidd of Kansas City.

Kidd was released last year after serving 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

A disciplinary hearing on McGowan’s status to practice law is set for October in Kansas City. If claims of misconduct are substantiated, the state Supreme Court would decide the appropriate punishment, which could range from a reprimand to disbarment.

Attempts to reach McGowan were unsuccessful. Her attorney, John E. Turner, declined to comment specifically, but said McGowan has denied wrongdoing. She retired last year as chief assistant district attorney in Douglas County, Kansas, after a series of protests led by Smith, founder of the KC Freedom Project.

Calls seeking comment from Stan Hazlett, Kansas disciplinary administrator, were not returned. His office would neither confirm nor deny an investigation into McGowan’s behavior, Hazlett previously told The Star Editorial Board.

These new allegations of multiple instances of malfeasance are more than enough reason to revisit the case of a man sentenced to life in prison without parole. Unless the Missouri Supreme Court intervenes, Carnes will die behind bars while his guilt remains in doubt.