Editorial: Seeking justice

Questions surrounding a Jefferson County murder case are a reminder of the importance of having qualified, ethical and professional people serving at all levels of law enforcement.

Americans like to think that their legal system “works,” that people who are guilty go to prison and those who are innocent go free.

Then a case like that of Tom and Floyd Bledsoe comes to light.

Floyd Bledsoe recently was released from prison after serving 15 years of a life sentence in the murder of 14-year-old Camille Arfmann near Oskaloosa. The release came after a Jefferson County judge dropped the murder charges against Floyd. He was not formally exonerated so he could be recharged if new evidence surfaces — although prosecutors said that was unlikely because the key witness against Floyd, his brother, Tom, committed suicide last month.

In suicide notes he left behind, Tom confessed to the murder and to helping frame his brother for the crime. Those notes were just part of the evidence that eventually led to Floyd’s release. New DNA testing on Arfmann’s clothing essentially cleared Floyd and implicated Tom. Investigators also found glaring problems with the initial investigation and prosecution: DNA testing that suddenly was halted on the orders of a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent and the Jefferson County sheriff and county attorney and falsified results on a polygraph test taken by Tom. Floyd and his attorney were told that the DNA test results were negative and that Tom passed the polygraph test even though he had not.

Add these factors to an arguably ineffective defense by Floyd’s attorney and you end up with a three-day trial, a conviction and a life sentence.

But couldn’t the errors be fixed? Attorneys tried. In 2002 and 2007, the Kansas Supreme Court upheld the conviction even though the later decision acknowledged that the performance of Floyd’s attorney was “constitutionally deficient.” In 2008, a U.S. district judge in Topeka released Floyd based on ineffective assistance of counsel, but less than a year later, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed that decision and returned Floyd to prison.

The system clearly was not working for Floyd Bledsoe.

By this time, the Kansas University Project for Innocence had gotten involved with Floyd’s case. It took a while, but his luck eventually began to change. KU law students began tracking down evidence and pushing for new DNA tests. With the assistance of the Midwest Innocence Project that testing was completed, and the results were released in October. Within two months Floyd was free.

Looking back 15 years later, it’s hard to understand how Floyd Bledsoe was convicted. The problems with this case should be thoroughly investigated, and those involved should be held accountable. This situation is a clear reminder of the importance of having qualified people of integrity in all levels of the law enforcement system. The Jefferson County sheriff and attorney are both elected positions, so voters share in that responsibility.

It’s also cause for congratulations to the many KU law students and their faculty advisers who continued to pursue this case on Floyd Bledsoe’s behalf. It doesn’t erase 15 years of prison, but, at least in this case, it seems justice finally prevailed.