Protesters call for reforms in Douglas County district attorney’s office, review of former prosecutor’s cases
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Amid a heated race for Douglas County district attorney, a group of about 100 protesters headed to downtown Lawrence Wednesday to call for greater accountability and transparency from the incumbent.
The organizing group, KC Freedom Project, bused people in from Wichita and Kansas City to join Lawrence protesters in front of the Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St.
“The focus of this event is to hold the prosecutor’s office accountable for their complicity in a system that fails to uphold justice for its most vulnerable members,” according to a news release sent by the group Tuesday afternoon.
District Attorney Charles Branson is facing two challengers, Lawrence criminal defense attorney Cooper Overstreet and KU law professor Suzanne Valdez, in the upcoming Aug. 4 Democratic primary. The winner of the primary is expected to become the next district attorney, as no Republicans filed for the seat. Wednesday was the first day that advance voting for the race opened.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
Latahra Smith, an investigator and leader of the KC Freedom Project, has called for a review of all cases handled by Amy McGowan, a former chief assistant district attorney in Branson’s office. McGowan has retired, but had been the subject of criticism from criminal justice advocates for the past several years.
Some of those concerns centered on a case McGowan was a prosecutor for in Jackson County, Mo., prior to McGowan coming to work for the Douglas County district attorney’s office. In August 2019, a Missouri court exonerated Ricky Kidd, a man whom McGowan had prosecuted and who spent 23 years in prison for murder.
The court’s ruling detailed how McGowan had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence to the defense, including transcripts of a deposition of the people Kidd had said was responsible for the crime. She also withheld evidence that one of the witnesses was not believable, and instead portrayed him as a “heroic neighbor” in her closing arguments.
Branson said Wednesday that when the Jackson County district attorney’s office filed a memo on Sept. 13 saying that it would not appeal the court’s ruling and attempt to retry Kidd, McGowan was taken off active cases and allowed to retire Nov. 1.
Protesters also called for a conviction integrity unit in the DA’s office. Branson said, however, that he thought there was a misunderstanding of what such a unit would do. Those units exist for cases in which new evidence arises that suggests that a convicted defendant didn’t actually commit the crime, and he said his office would “absolutely always review any information like that.” He said the Kansas appellate courts exist to handle post-conviction issues such as trial errors and interpretations of the law.
Some at the protest spoke about their experiences within the criminal justice system. Some shared stories of being wrongly convicted, including a man who was exonerated after being sentenced to death. Some lamented the deaths of others who they believed were wrongly convicted, sentenced to death and executed. Others spoke about how they had been convicted legitimately, but they cited other problems within the system.
Ester Holzendorf, of a movement called Sankofa KC, spoke during the protest. She said she believes the people have the right to hold the people accountable who allowed McGowan to continue.
photo by: Mackenzie Clark
“I am old school, and I know it doesn’t take but one bad apple to spoil the bunch,” she said.
Branson had been invited to come speak and address protesters’ concerns. He said he did not come out to speak because early voting had started, and he did not want to violate election laws by campaigning within 250 feet of a polling place, the nearby Douglas County Courthouse.
However, County Clerk Jamie Shew, reached by phone Wednesday, said it’s not a violation of election law for candidates to speak near polling places as long as they are not advocating for or against anything on the ballot. Overstreet briefly addressed the crowd.
More recently than the Kidd case, McGowan was involved in a murder prosecution in Douglas County that was overturned by the Kansas Court of Appeals. However, that case has turned on issues different from those raised in the Missouri case. Danny Queen, who was convicted in a 2017 shooting at a Eudora bar that left one man dead, had his conviction and sentence overturned after the court ruled his right to a speedy trial had been violated.
In the Queen case, the court found that Queen’s jury trial was scheduled to start three days late. The appeals court opinion states the court incorrectly believed, and the prosecutor incorrectly confirmed, that the speedy trial deadline was a month later than it actually was.
As a result of the violation, under state law Queen cannot be retried. However, Branson said he plans to ask the Kansas Supreme Court to review the case.
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• Aug. 16, 2013: Kansas Supreme Court affirms conviction in rape charge
• Feb. 14, 2013: Douglas County prosecutor removed from cases for errors in trials