Protesters call for prosecutor Amy McGowan to be fired over alleged misconduct; DA calls event a stunt to possibly sway jury

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Latahra Smith, an activist and private investigator from Kansas City, Mo., leads a group of protesters calling for Amy McGowan, a Douglas County prosecutor, to be fired, on Sept. 16, 2019.

A group of protesters gathered on Monday to call for a Douglas County prosecutor to be removed from her position for what they believe to be prosecutorial misconduct.

In a protest outside the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, local defense attorney Sarah Swain led the group in calls for the firing of Amy McGowan, the chief assistant district attorney for Douglas County. Some protesters were wearing light blue shirts that said “Fire Amy McGowan” on the front and had the logo of Swain’s law firm on the back.

“Amy McGowan has been a problem prosecutor since she came to Douglas County,” Swain said. “Unfortunately, the pattern of misconduct that Amy McGowan had already established for herself in Jackson County, Missouri, followed her to Douglas County.”

However, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson called the protest a “stunt” meant to sway a jury in the murder trial of Rontarus Washington Jr., Swain’s former client, which is occurring this week. According to Douglas County District Court records, Swain previously represented Washington in the case. Washington is currently being represented by attorneys Angela Keck and Adam Hall.

“Ms. Swain is a defense attorney that will do anything to divert attention away from the guilt of her clients,” Branson said. “I fear this stunt may be a direct attempt to influence the jury.”

The Journal-World attempted to reach McGowan, but Branson said she declined to comment.

Swain said the protest had nothing to do with Washington’s case other than that she has serious concerns about Branson’s office, which is handling the prosecution through Senior Assistant District Attorney C.J. Rieg. Swain said she was offended that Branson would call the protest a “stunt.”

“This is a woman who has been responsible for destroying the lives of God only knows how many people, and that’s why we’re here and that’s what we’re upset about,” she said. “The fact that he’s not upset about it says a lot more about him than it says about us.”

photo by: Sara Shepherd/Journal-World File Photo

In this Journal-World file photo from Jan. 10, 2019, Prosecutor Amy McGowan gestures while speaking to the jury during her closing arguments in the Albert N. Wilson rape trial in Douglas County District Court.

During the protest, many of the protesters criticized McGowan for her time as a prosecutor in Missouri. They said McGowan has a history of withholding evidence to support the conviction of innocent people. They pointed, as an example, to a recent ruling that found a Missouri man was wrongfully convicted of murder.

In a document filed Aug. 14, the Circuit Court of DeKalb County, Mo., ruled that as a prosecutor for Jackson County, Mo., McGowan failed to turn over exculpatory evidence in the case. As a result, Ricky Kidd, now 44, spent 23 years in prison for a 1996 double murder that he did not commit. Kidd was exonerated on Friday.

Branson said he thought it was unfair for the group to criticize McGowan for a case she handled 20 years ago.

“While she did make errors in that case, the case was overturned primarily because the main witness recanted,” he said.

Swain said the ruling is just one of many reasons the protesters called for McGowan to be fired and she’s worried McGowan is unfit to be a prosecutor in Douglas County, where she moved after leaving Jackson County. Swain pointed to Branson’s previous decision to remove McGowan from her cases in 2013.

The Journal-World reported on Feb. 14, 2013, that McGowan had been removed from her cases and reassigned to other duties after the Kansas Supreme Court faulted her for trial errors. After the court’s ruling, Branson removed McGowan from her caseload of major felony sex crime cases.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Sarah Swain, in red, speaks to a group of protesters calling for Douglas County Chief Assistant District Attorney Amy McGowan to be fired, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. Swain, a local defense attorney, helped organize the event.

However, she eventually returned to prosecuting felony sex crimes. Swain said McGowan’s return to the felony cases allowed her to continue a pattern of what Swain called misconduct. She said the recent conviction of Albert Wilson, of Wichita, was an example.

On Jan. 10, a jury convicted Wilson of raping an intoxicated teenage girl he met at a Lawrence bar. That case, which McGowan prosecuted, is currently on appeal.

Wilson testified that he did not have intercourse with the girl, and his defense attorney, Forrest Lowry, argued there was no evidence that he did. The state, however, introduced photos from the sexual assault exam the girl got at a hospital that showed bruising on her legs — from where she said he had held her down.

At the sentencing, where Wilson received 12 years, Judge Sally Pokorny told Wilson: “You and your family may not agree with the verdict, but the verdict came back as guilty.”

“This offense is a rape,” the judge emphasized.

In another case where Swain thought McGowan had overstepped in charging, the owners of a local CBD store, Free State Collective, face felony charges after the Kansas Bureau of Investigation raided the business in February, acting on a tip that it “was selling marijuana under the guise of being legalized industrial hemp,” according to an affidavit in the case.

Sean Lefler and Anne Martin, co-owners of the store at 1910 Haskell Ave., are both charged with possessing and distributing THC, the ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. In an email to the Journal-World, Lefler, who co-owns the business with Martin, referred questions to Swain.

— Journal-World reporter Mackenzie Clark contributed to this report.

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