Amna Nawaz: Hey y’all, This is episode five of a five part series. So if you didn’t start from the beginning, trust me, it’s going to make a lot more sense if you stop right here and go back to episode one.
Automated voice: May I have your attention please, may I have your attention please.
Amna Nawaz: It’s a Friday morning in June at the public defender’s office in St. Louis, Missouri.
Automated voice: Please proceed to the nearest exit and leave the building.
Amna Nawaz: The fire alarm is blaring, but nobody’s moving. Everyone’s just quietly going about their business. Someone shuts the door so they don’t have to hear it. The alarm is going off because below this office, someone in the County Jail has pulled it. It happens a lot. And public defenders have gotten used to it.
Stephen Reynolds : I mean, if there is actually a real emergency, sometimes the St. Louis County police will actually walk through the building and clear the building.
Amna Nawaz: That’s Stephen Reynolds, he’s the head public defender in this office.
Frank Carlson: Do you see this at all as a metaphor for your office?
Stephen Reynolds : I know where you’re going. But no, I think there are two separate issues.
Frank Carlson : I mean, you kind of have alarms going off constantly and you just kind of ignore them.
Stephen Reynolds: I wouldn’t say that we ignore the issues in our office. I would say we’re put in a position of triaging which we’re not supposed to do.
Automated voice : There’s been a fire reported in the building.
Public Defender: I’m literally just cold calling in the courtroom like “John? Bob? Anybody? Hi, I’m your lawyer.” The lady at the grocery store knows me probably better
Public Defender: I basically have about five judges who are looking for me because they’ve got defendants who are in their courtrooms and they want to get these cases resolved, but I can only be in one place at one time.
Public Defender: There’s just not enough time in the day to do everything that needs to get done.
Amna Nawaz: We’ve looked at how triage can play out for clients, like it did for Ricky Kidd.
Ricky Kidd: I wasn’t able to fully develop into my potential as a man. I was 21 years old when I was incarcerated, I’m about to be 45 now. The many things that I could have done with my life, those things have been taken away from me.
Amna Nawaz: We’ve looked at how difficult it’s been for public defenders to try to change this system.
Steve Hanlon: This is a disease and it’s gone on for 50 years.
Amna Nawaz: But what if the problems with public defense are a symptom of a larger problem? The problem of mass incarceration?
Michael Barrett: We don’t do a very good job in America of separating the people we’re mad at, from the people we’re afraid of, and so for that reason, 50 percent of Missouri’s prison population is made up of people who are convicted of a nonviolent offense.
Amna Nawaz: And what if addressing the problems of public defense means also addressing the larger problems of the criminal justice system?
Steve Hanlon: The two options are: you can give us more lawyers, we can make the system bigger, and that’s called the supply-side solution. And then, there’s the demand-side solution, and that means stop prosecuting all this low level stuff that’s really mental illness and addiction
Amna Nawaz: In this episode, the last in our series, we’re going to look at the way prosecutors charge crimes, and how one county prosecutor, Wesley Bell, is trying to make a difference from his side of the courtroom, and how that might help public defenders, too.
Wesley Bell: If you have a prosecutor that’s reasonable, you tend to get reasonable outcomes.
Amna Nawaz: And we’ll return to the case of Ricky Kidd, who finally got a new day in court after 23 years behind bars.
Ricky Kidd: People was looking for the movie moment where the judge says “Mr. Kidd, rise.” He announces that you’re free to go. It just wasn’t a movie moment and often they’re not movie moments.
Amna Nawaz: This is “Broken Justice,” a show from the PBS NewsHour about the public defender system in Missouri – and what it tells us about justice in America. I’m Amna Nawaz.
Frank Carlson: And I’m Frank Carlson.
Amna Nawaz: So Frank, Wesley Bell, he’s the St. Louis County prosecutor, he’s become sort of an unlikely player on this issue of public defender caseloads. How did that happen?
Frank Carlson: Well to understand that, it helps to know a little bit about his background. He actually started out as a public defender in St. Louis County, then became a municipal judge, then a prosecutor, and then, following the protests in Ferguson in 2014, he ran for City Council and he won.
Archival news footage: I would like to introduce your next City Councilman for Ward 3 in Ferguson, Wesley Bell!
Frank Carlson: And he helped negotiate reform in the Ferguson City police department and courts. But Wesley knew the place where he could make the most change was in the county prosecutor’s office. We’ve been talking this whole series about public defenders and their caseloads, but prosecutors play a huge role in determining how many cases public defenders have to take on. After all, it’s the prosecutor who decides whether to bring charges against a defendant in the first place, what those charges should be, whether to offer a plea deal, or an alternative to jail time. Bell wanted to reform the system, and to do that, he needed to set the priorities. And so late last year…
Wesley Bell: My name is Wesley Bell. I’m running for St. Louis County Prosecutor for a safer St. Louis.
Frank Carlson: …he ran to become head of the county prosecutor’s office and he won that race.
Broadcaster: 67-year-old Bob Mccullough is defeated in yesterday’s primary by Ferguson councilman 43-year-old Wesley Bell.
Frank Carlson: He officially took over in January, and so we went to see him about six months after he’d been in office to see how things were going.
Wesley Bell: Oh so we’re not on camera.
Frank Carlson: We are not on camera.
Wesley Bell: Ok good. I didn’t shave.
Frank Carlson: Wesley explained how he was trying to change the way St. Louis county deals with crime, from the prosecutor’s side of the equation..
Wesley Bell: If you have a prosecutor that’s reasonable, you tend to get reasonable outcomes.
Amna Nawaz : So ‘reasonable outcomes,’ what does that even mean?
Frank Carlson: Well, it means a whole host of things. For example, this year, he stopped prosecuting marijuana possession for people carrying less than 100 grams. He stopped seeking jail time for child support violations. Another reasonable outcome: he said his office would expand alternatives to prosecution through drug court and mental health court. And he’s no longer looking to set bail for nonviolent offenders and that means more people can go home, instead of waiting in jail to deal with their charges.
Wesley Bell: When we look at the reduction in the jail population with nonviolent offenders, when we look at not prosecuting low levels of marijuana, which I think is a waste of resources, I think that, that is born out of that perspective and understanding that ‘look we have limited resources. We’d rather reallocate and focus our resources on the serious and violent offenders.’
Amna Nawaz : So, in other words, prioritize who you prosecute.
Frank Carlson: Well yeah, prioritize to focus on violent offenders. And so we wanted to find out, “how do Wesley’s reforms affect public defenders?” So here’s one example. Since Wesley became County Prosecutor, his office is now treating failure to pay child support as a civil issue, not a criminal one, and that means jail time is largely off the table. And if a client isn’t facing jail time, they’re not entitled to a lawyer – so that means fewer cases for public defenders.
Beverly Hauber : We were dealing with hundreds of child support cases and those cases also don’t ever have a quick resolve because the whole point is you need money. Public defender clients don’t have money, so you ride the docket for a year, or sometimes more than that.
Frank Carlson: Beverly Hauber been a public defender in the St. Louis office for 4 years, and she says this has made a huge difference. She also says what the prosecutor’s office has done to expand drug and mental health courts is really important too.
Beverly Hauber : So those things have absolutely refocused our caseload. Some of the minor possession charges, even property damage things like that. The prosecutor’s office is kind of getting ahead of that and before it even gets to us, sometimes they’re offering people diversion programs or, instead of issuing it as a felony, maybe it’s being issued as a misdemeanor. All of those things impact our abilities to use our resources.
Amna Nawaz : Ok, so, that sounds like they’re able to address some of those issues early, clear these cases earlier too. Wesley also mentioned this issue of plea deals?
Frank Carlson: Yeah, plea deals are how the vast majority of these cases get resolved in this system not through a trial, but through a deal with the prosecutor. And so, how it works is that a prosecutor might charge someone with drug trafficking, but then say “Look, I’ll knock this down and recommend the minimum sentence if you plead guilty today.” And since many public defender clients can’t afford bail, and they’re told it’ll be months before their public defenders can get to their cases, they often take those deals rather than sit in jail. Wesley Bell says that kind of overcharging to force a plea will not happen in his office.
Wesley Bell: You find the fair charge and if you have to try the case then go try the case. We’re not going to force individuals to plea. I don’t think that that’s just. And I don’t think it’s ethical.
Frank Carlson: As of September, nine months after Wesley started pushing these kinds of reforms, his office said the jail population in St. Louis County was down 15 percent.
Frank Carlson: How well is the system working today?
Wesley Bell: Right, at this point? I think the system is working a lot better. And I think there are some tangible things that we can look at.
Amna Nawaz: So in theory, Wesley’s changes seem to mean fewer people need a public defender in the first place.
Frank Carlson: Exactly, and public defenders say that’s great because it allows them to focus on the cases that really need the most work, the really serious ones. But the problem is that those really serious cases, they need a lot of work. And so, public defenders in St. Louis County say even with Wesley Bell’s reforms, it’s still not enough. They still have too many cases.
Beverly Hauber: So without an investigator, without more attorneys, it’s not going to make a big change if we don’t have more bodies touching each one of these files and being there to advocate for a client.
Frank Carlson: But there are other things changing in St. Louis County, outside of the prosecutor’s office. This summer, the Circuit Court judges in that county passed a new rule and it allows them to appoint private lawyers to take on some of the public defenders’ cases when they’re overloaded. And to determine who’s overloaded, they’re using Steve Hanlon’s numbers — our data guy from the last episode. The presiding judge in St. Louis County is also considering creating a waitlist for clients.
Amna Nawaz: Ok, so all of that seems like progress. They’re finally getting some traction with judges. But a waitlist? How would that work?
Frank Carlson: Yeah. This is something that’s currently happening in about half of the state’s public defender offices. Basically the offices use Steve Hanlon’s numbers to set limits on how many cases their public defenders can handle at any one time. And when public defenders hit those limits, new defendants, whether they’re out on bond or sitting in jail, can be added to a waitlist. So that means the public defenders stay at, or near, their limits.
Amna Nawaz: Well wait, that sounds a lot like the same problem they had before, people stuck in jail waiting for a lawyer.
Frank Carlson: Yeah, I mean you’re right, there was essentially a waitlist before. But at least this way, the offices can prioritize the people in jail. So it’s a bit more orderly. But it doesn’t do much for those clients on the waitlists. They’re still stuck in limbo, waiting for a lawyer.
Amna Nawaz: So what do we know about the waitlist? How many clients are actually on those waiting?
Frank Carlson: Well as of mid-November across the state, there were about 5,800 clients on waitlists.
Amna Nawaz: That’s not a small number.
Frank Carlson: No, it’s not. And Michael Barrett knows that and he says he doesn’t like it.
Michael Barrett: The clients are absolutely getting the brunt of this.
Frank Carlson: But he says until the state puts up more money, that’s the way it has to be.
Michael Barrett: We’re like any other state department, if the Department of Transportation says we need $500,000,000 to resurface all the roads and fix all the bridges and they’re only provided $250,000,000, well they’re not going to resurface all the roads and fix all the bridges. They’re going to do half of them and we’re no different.
Amna Nawaz: Ok, so Missouri’s public defenders are still trying to put their foot down. But did you just say Michael Barrett resigned?
Frank Carlson: Yeah. He says after years of essentially doing everything short of setting himself on fire to raise attention for these issues, he’s done. He’s gone back to New York, where he’s originally from, to raise his family.
Michael Barrett: You know, it was described to me by my predecessor that you know it’s like pushing a large boulder up a hill where you can’t see the top of the hill, you just have to push for as long as you can and then turn it over to the next person in line behind you.
Amna Nawaz: So whatever happens in Missouri I guess, will be up to someone else, whoever replaces Michael Barrett?
Frank Carlson: Yeah, it’s going to be someone else’s problem.
Amna Nawaz: Ok, but that whole caseload funding issue he was trying to fix, it’s not just Missouri’s problem right? What’s happening in other states?
Frank Carlson: So beyond Missouri, Steve Hanlon is working to keep the pressure up on these systems by doing caseload studies in other states, to give those states the same data that Michael Barret’s had to press these issues.
Steve Hanlon: Sun Tzu, the art of war. Every battle is won before it’s ever begun. It’s won by the choice of terrain. And that’s where we are. We’re in a battle.
Frank Carlson: The American Civil Liberties Union is also in that battle — continuing to sue states and local governments across the country, including in Missouri. And in Missouri, the A.C.L.U. has adopted Steve Hanlon’s numbers in its lawsuit against the state public defender system. The two parties are attempting to settle, and if that settlement’s approved by a judge would mean major changes for this system, and perhaps a way forward for other systems. But Jason Williamson, the lawyer at the A.C.L.U. working on these cases, he says ultimately, this legal strategy is only going to take them so far.
Jason Williamson: While I would love to be able to do this in one fell swoop or certainly in a more efficient way than you know going state by state, or county by county, and suing people, we’ll do whatever we need to do. There is certainly a much bigger role that the federal government could play in moving this ball forward.
Frank Carlson: And we’ve already seen this getting some attention in the early days of the 2020 race.
Julian Castro: Sentencing reform, cash bail reform, investing in public defenders, diversion programs.
Cory Booker: We have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.
Frank Carlson: Several Democratic candidates have plans to provide more funding for public defense as part of a broader pledge to criminal justice reform.
Bernie Sanders: Today in America, 20 percent of the people in jail unbelievably are in jail for the crime of being poor.
Frank Carlson: And it’s not just Democrats. This summer “ALEC,” the influential conservative lobbying group, announced its own support to better fund public defense. And for years, conservative billionaire Charles Koch has been donating money to improve public defense across the country.
Amna Nawaz: Ok, so that’s all good going forward. But what about all the people who have already gone through this system right? The people who think their public defenders failed them, that they’re the reason they’ve been serving long sentences? Like none of this does much to help people like Ricky Kidd, right?
Frank Carlson: Well there are places, like St. Louis, where prosecutors are now reviewing claims of wrongful conviction and in some cases, overturning those convictions. That didn’t work for Ricky, but this year, after many crushing setbacks, Ricky did finally get a new day in court.
Ricky Kidd: I’m aware of the percentage of cases that are won and lost but I always just, I have to wake up everyday believing that this is it.
Amna Nawaz: More on that after the break.
Amna Nawaz: When we last heard about Ricky Kidd, this is what we knew, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a double murder that he says he didnt commit. He had an alibi for the day of the murders. He even said he knew who committed them. He told this all to his public defender and he still got convicted.
Frank Carlson: And then in 2009, Ricky’s legal team got him another hearing. To lay out all the stuff his public defender missed in her investigation and at his trial. But that judge, he ruled that he couldn’t consider most of that new evidence. And that’s because of a Federal Circuit Court rule that prevents judges from considering information if it was available to the lawyers in the original trial. Ricky lost.
Ricky Kidd: And they spit back in my face, “You had lawyers.” “I had your failed public defender system lawyers though.” “Oh yeah, well oh well.”
Frank Carlson: Here’s Sean O’Brien, Ricky’s lawyer from that hearing and his current lawyer:
Sean O’Brien: I have never been more discouraged by an order, at that point, I knew it was going to be uphill, uphill, uphill.
Frank Carlson: But Ricky’s team kept working, and eventually a state judge agreed to hear a new appeal in Ricky’s case this year. And this time, 22 years after Ricky’s first trial, the judge could consider all the evidence, even the stuff that was rejected a decade earlier.
Coming up to downtown Gallatin and the courthouse. In April, I went to Gallatin, Missouri, for that hearing. And for four days, Ricky’s lawyers threw everything they had in front of the court to prove that Ricky was wrongfully convicted and that he deserved a new trial.
Judge Daren Atkins: Case number 18-cc0017 Ricky Kidd vs. Rhonda Pash.
Frank Carlson: What you’re hearing is the actual courtroom audio.
Cindy Dodge: Thank you, your honor. Cynthia Dodge on behalf of the petitioner. I’m also here with co-counsel Sean O’Brien as well as Ricky Kidd who appears in person.
Judge Daren Atkins: Thank you.
Frank Carlson: The judge heard from Ricky’s former girlfriend, his primary alibi witness.
Cindy Dodge: Please introduce yourself to the court.
Monica Gray: Monica Gray
Cindy Dodge: And Ms. Gray.
Frank Carlson: And she again confirmed Ricky’s story from the day of the murders. The judge also heard testimony from Ricky’s co-defendant. He wouldn’t come to court again, so an actor read from the transcript from the 2009 hearing.
Sean O’Brien: And in fact did you see Ricky Kidd at any time on February 6, 1996?
Marcus Merrill: No sir.
Sean O’Brien: He was not involved in this at all, was he?
Marcus Merrill: No sir.
Sean O’Brien: You don’t even know where Ricky Kidd was that day?
Marcus Merrill: No, sir.
Amna Nawaz: So they had a lot of this evidence back at the last hearing in 2009, right? Was there anything else?
Frank Carlson: Yeah, there was some new evidence, too. The judge heard from the state’s star eyewitness from the original trial, the neighbor.
Sean O’Brien: Petitioner calls Mr. Richard Harris. Mr. Harris would you step forward please?
Amna Nawaz: Now he was the one who said that he was “2,001 percent” sure that Ricky Kidd killed one of the victims, right?
Frank Carlson: Exactly.
Michael Spillane: Let me ask you this. When you testified under oath at trial that you were 2,001 percent sure of your in-court identification, were you telling the truth?
Richard Harris: I made a mistake, man.
Michael Spillane: Say again.
Richard Harris: I made a mistake, plain and simple, man.That man did not do that.
Michael Spillane: That’s not what I’m asking you.
Richard Harris: I hear what you asking me, but I’m telling you that man is [censored] innocent, and I’m sorry for my language.
Amna: Woah! Wasn’t that the only direct evidence that they had in court that actually put Ricky at the scene?
Frank Carlson: Yeah. So that was huge. And from the stand, that neighbor apologized to Ricky — who was sitting right in the courtroom listening.
Richard Harris: I do want to apologize to you man. Seriously.
Frank Carlson: So the state’s key eyewitness recanted. But there was something else — Ricky’s lawyers found evidence that the original prosecutor from his trial had withheld information — information that pointed to the three other suspects Ricky always said committed these murders. And so, one of the key questions at this new hearing was: did the fact that the prosecutor withheld this information from Ricky’s lawyer amount to an unfair trial?
Sean O’Brien: Would you introduce yourself to the court please?
Teresa Anderson: Yes, my name is Teresa Anderson. And I am an attorney and I previously represented Ricky Kidd some 22 years ago, I think.
Frank Carlson: Teresa Anderson, Ricky’s public defender from the first trial, was the last person to take the stand. And she told the court that she’d always believed in Ricky’s innocence, and she even broke down when she was asked how she could have used this information.
Teresa Anderson: It’s frustrating, Because there’s so much that I didn’t know that I should have known. And I don’t – and I don’t think it was something I could have known all by myself. I don’t think it’s something Ricky could have known all by himself. You know this was stuff that should have been turned over to me. If I had that information, you know, I mean, I may have been able to do a better job and that’s frustrating.
Amna Nawaz: There is a lot to unpack there and the thing is, it’s all stuff that should have pointed to Ricky’s innocence. I mean, you’d think he’d be exonerated right then and there.
Frank Carlson: Yeah, I mean, during the four days of this hearing, Ricky’s family and friends were all gathered in this old courthouse in Gallatin. His mom, his big sister, his kids, even his granddaughter was there. And many of them thought that at the end of the week, the judge would just have to let Ricky go. But that’s not what happened. On the last day of testimony, the judge said that he had a lot of reading to do before he could make his decision and the court adjourned. Ricky was approached by two guards who led him out of the courtroom, down the stairs and out the back of the courthouse, where a van was waiting to take him back to prison.
Ricky Kidd: I thought today would be the day that justice will prevail.
Frank Carlson: I caught up with Ricky’s mother outside the courthouse.
Ricky Kidd: It’s just too much. How much can a mother bear, you know?
Frank Carlson: Here’s Ricky’s big sister.
Ricky Kidd: I know he feels devastated and it feels like, you know–but he’s so strong, so I’m gonna be strong and I know that he is coming home.
Ricky Kidd: People was looking for the movie moment
Frank Carlson: That’s Ricky, speaking to me from prison the week after the hearing.
Ricky Kidd: The movie moment where your case is presented, where the judge says, “Mr. Kidd, rise.” He announces that you’re, you know, after hearing X, Y, and Z, that you’re free to go. It just wasn’t a movie moment and often they’re not movie moments. At this point, Sean O’Brien, Ricky’s pro bono lawyer, said all they could do was wait. Weeks passed. Then, months.
Sean O’Brien: I compare it to a boxing match that the person who wins the match is hardly ever free of bruises at the end of the day. And so, but, that’s what you have to do is to kind of let it all hang out so that the decision maker feels “I’ve heard everything there is to know. And on balance, in looking at it all, they have the wrong guy.”
Frank Carlson: And then finally, in August …
Sean O’Brien: Sean O’Brien.
Frank Carlson: Sean, it’s Frank. How are you doing?
Sean O’Brien: I’m good!
Frank Carlson: Good! Sean had just gotten an email from the judge. Ricky had won.
Sean O’Brien: It’s really exciting and I’ve been on running on adrenaline since I opened up that e-mail this morning. It’s just, you know, so rewarding to, you’re literally giving somebody his life back.
We were all dying to talk to Ricky. But we couldn’t get a hold of him. Then the next day, producer Vika Aronson and I were on the phone with his big sister, Nikki.
Nikki Kidd: Hi Vika, how are you?
Vika Aronson: Good, good, how are you?
Frank Carlson: And seconds into our call, she said Ricky was calling her.
Vika Aronson: Ok, and we’re taping it.
Nikki Kidd: Uh-oh. Ok.
Vika Aronson: Yeah.
Nikki Kidd: Oh hold on, Ricky’s calling.
Frank Carlson: She patched us through to Ricky, and Ricky told us how his lawyers had called him at the prison to give him the news.
Ricky Kidd: And I said “Guys, what’s up? What’s going on? My nerves. I’m on edge.” And they was like, “you know what’s going on.” And I said, “well maybe I do, but tell me.” And – and Cindy said “Ricky, you’re free, you’re free. The judge ruled in our favor. You’re gonna be free.” And I just was overcome with emotion. The whole time we was on the phone, I couldn’t say nothing. I may have said thank you and a couple things. But I was without – I literally was without words the entire time we were on the phone. Just just overwhelmed and overjoyed.
Frank Carlson: The judge decided that the prosecutor had improperly withheld evidence from the defense. And on top of that, he said in his judgement that Ricky Kidd was innocent. The next day, the judge signed an order saying Ricky could be released while the state decided whether to fight his decision. And that afternoon, Ricky walked out of prison in a suit, surrounded by his family, his lawyers, and his supporters.
Newscaster: Freedom. After more than 20 years in prison, today, Ricky Kidd walked free.
Vika Aronson: Alright, here it is, Cheesecake Factory in Kansas City.
Frank Carlson: The next day, Vika and I jump on a plane to Kansas City to go meet Ricky for the first time in person.
Ricky Kidd: We meet again! Totally different circumstances.
Frank Carlson: We find Ricky, on his first full day as a free man, ordering mozzarella sticks and drinks with his family and friends.
Ricky Kidd: You know, my daughter was in her mother’s womb when I got locked up and she, she drove me here today.
Frank Carlson: Another exoneree, a man named Darryl Burton, who also spent more than 20 years in prison is at dinner, too. Now he’s a pastor and he co-founded a non-profit to help wrongfully convicted inmates get out, and once they do, to get back on their feet.
Darryl Burton: If you don’t mind, can I offer a blessing before we get started eating and everything?
Frank Carlson: He asks to give a prayer before the meal.
Darryl Burton: God, we just thank you Lord for what you’ve done and this miracle that you brought Ricky home and we just ask you to just be with all those, Lord, who are in prison or wrongfully sitting in those cages, Lord, just praying and waiting for a way, and a hope to come home just like Ricky did and just like I did. We pray these things in our lord’s name so be it, amen.
Ricky Kidd: Amen, amen.
Frank Carlson: I ask Ricky what it felt like to finally walk out of that prison after so many years.
Ricky Kidd: I was grateful on so many different levels. I was grateful to be exonerated. I was grateful to be with my family, and I was grateful that that everybody was there.
Frank Carlson: What’s the world look like, I mean, to you? What are you seeing that we don’t see because we’ve gotten used to it?
Ricky Kidd: I see trees. I see a bath, that I had this morning that I haven’t taken in 23 years. I woke up and brushed my teeth with a real toothbrush this morning. A real extended toothbrush, it even had a button on it “buzzzzzzz” and I brushed my teeth this morning the longest. I didn’t want to stop brushing. [laughs] so it’s small things like that.
Frank Carlson: Even on Ricky’s first day of freedom, as he’s enjoying all of these things that he missed for so long, he can’t help reflecting on all the problems with the system — and how lucky he was to have found people to help him on his case
Ricky Kidd: But when you’re talking about being poor, you don’t have access to money and therefore you don’t have access to Sean o’Briens and Cindy Dodges. When you don’t have access to attorneys like that, you’re gonna get a Cincinnati public defender system or a Missouri public defender system or Illinois public defender system. It’s a gimmick! You’re entitled to a lawyer only by show, only by paper, you’re entitled to representation only on paper.
Frank Carlson: We also stopped by to see Sean O’Brien at his house. We found him at his kitchen table, working on a death penalty case in Wyoming.
Sean O’Brien: I never get to sit and just enjoy the feeling because my head’s already in Wyoming, my other case.
Frank Carlson: Sean’s seen this kind of story play out before: a wrongfully convicted man being freed after a long arduous court battle. And his thoughts were already turning to the next chapter.
Sean O’Brien: What happened yesterday was joyous, but I’ve been through this with so many clients and I know what’s coming in a week or two. And it’s going to be hard.
Frank Carlson: Sorry, what’s coming in a week or two?
Sean O’Brien: When the adrenaline rush and the excitement falls down and the loss of 23 years becomes so obvious to Ricky and his family. You know he’ll go through a lot of of emotional problems. And so we’re, you know, we’re gonna work on it.
Frank Carlson: Sean was once a public defender. He says he left that system 30 years ago because he thought it was broken. And he decided to instead focus on correcting the errors produced by it, by overturning wrongful convictions. He’s had some big wins over the years — he’s literally saved his client’s lives — and he’s helped create the legal precedents that have allowed more people to walk free.
Sean O’Brien: So, we have enough exonerees just in Kansas City to do pretty large group therapy
Frank Carlson: But he also knows there are far more people out there than he can ever help. Ricky is the exception — he’s not the rule.
What I was trying to get at was, kind of, how are we supposed to think about this system? Did the system succeed here?
Sean O’Brien: No. It didn’t succeed when an innocent man got convicted and it utterly failed when it took 23 years to fix that mistake. I mean, I wish I could say it was a crack in the system, but this is the system.
Frank Carlson: In September, a few weeks after we met Ricky, the Jackson County prosecutor announced she was dropping all charges against him. And the Attorney General said he wasn’t going to fight the judge’s decision either. In other words, Ricky was finally free and clear of this nightmare that began 23 years ago. Ricky now plans to travel around the country meeting with other exonerees like himself… And also talking to politicians and policy makers to try to push for change in the criminal justice system.
Amna Nawaz: So Frank, after all this time, after everything that Ricky has been through, it’s not even like he’s just putting the whole chapter behind him and moving on and trying to forget — he’s re-engaging with the same system that failed him?
Frank Carlson: Yeah, Ricky — I think he’s always felt that his story was representative of a larger problem. And so yeah, he’s working with the midwest innocence project, he’s helping set up new innocence projects around the country. He wants to fight for change on this issue and to help to get more people out of prison who are wrongfully convicted.
Amna Nawaz: You spent a lot of time with him. You’ve talked to him a bunch since he’s been released. For anyone in this situation, how is he not more angry?
Frank Carlson: I mean the short answer is, I don’t know. Like personally, I can I can tell you what he says and that’s that he – he says when he was in prison he never accepted a prisoner mentality. He always knew that someday, he was gonna get out and he knew that his innocence would be proven. And so he had this faith that things were gonna work out. And so he refused to engage in prison life and so that’s how he explains it.
But still, like for me, talking to him I’m still like, but there’s gotta be some issues there, right? And he says ‘no I don’t I — I don’t feel that way I don’t feel angry, I feel like we need to make change, we need to work on these issues, we need to change the system,’ but he’s not going to, he’s not going to lose the life that he has now, to the life that he lost in prison.
Ricky Kidd: Listen Frank, I am very sincere about taking this negative and turning it into a positive one thing I learned about prison and a wrongful conviction is I can do anything, because coming from underneath, a life without the possibility of parole sentence, in the state of Missouri is very challenging and difficult and nearly impossible. But we did it as a team, as friends, as lawyers, myself, everybody who played a role — we did it. We helped flesh out the truth.
Amna Nawaz: “Broken Justice” is hosted by me, Amna Nawaz, reported by Frank Carlson and produced by Vika Aronson. Editing by Erica R. Hendry and Emily Carpeaux. Engineering by Tom Satterfield.
Production assistance from Chris Ford. Fact-checking by Maea Lenei Buhre, Amber Partida, and Harry Zahn. Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Sugiura composed our theme music. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Rebecca Oh, Zoë Rohrich, Saher Kahn, and Liz Flock all helped with this episode.
And special thanks to Travis Daub, Vanessa Dennis, James Williams, Julia Griffin, Dan Cooney, Wyatt Mayes, Sydney Cameron, Nick Masella, John Yang, Adam Sarraff, Brennan Butler, Stephan Rohde, Patty Morales, Deema Zein, Bill Seabrook, Leah Nagy, Kira Wakeam, Sam Lane, Jaywon Choe, Lorna Baldwin, Rachel Wellford, and Maura Shannon. Thanks also to Bruce Cain, Jonathan Cherry, Dan DeVany and Cynthia Cotton at WETA-FM for their help with the series.
Sara Just is our Executive Producer.
And a special shout out to Baby Hendry. We thought the podcast would make its debut before you did, but you beat us to the punch!
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