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After 23 years wrongly imprisoned, Ricky Kidd is free — and using his voice

The exoneration of Ricky Kidd, a wrongly convicted man in Missouri who spent more than two decades in prison, highlights major problems with U.S. criminal justice. As covered in our Broken Justice podcast, Kidd was freed largely due to pro bono legal efforts. Kidd and attorney Sean O’Brien join Amna Nawaz to discuss the overburdened public defender system and how Kidd is turning anger to action.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now the story behind the exoneration of a wrongly convicted man in Missouri who spent decades in prison, and the lens it provides on larger problems with the criminal justice system.

    Amna Nawaz explores these questions.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over the past five weeks, our original podcast series "Broken Justice" has been telling the story of Missouri's overloaded public defender system and what that tells us about justice in America.

    The series focuses on how that system failed one man in particular, Ricky Kidd. In 1997, Kidd was convicted of double homicide and sentenced to life without parole. He has always maintained his innocence.

    In the final episode of the series, which is now out, we share that Kidd, after 23 years in prison, was exonerated and released.

    That is in large part due to pro bono legal efforts of Sean O'Brien, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who has spent decades working to overturn wrongful convictions.

    With us now to discuss all of that are Ricky Kidd and Sean O'Brien.

    Thank you so much to both of you for being here.

  • Sean O’Brien:

    Thank you. Thank you for having us.

  • Ricky Kidd:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ricky, let me start with you.

    It's an incredible story to the rest of us. It is your life. It's impossible to cover in full due here in this conversation.

    But how do you even begin to explain to people what it was like to be incarcerated for two decades knowing you didn't do what you were accused of doing?

  • Ricky Kidd:

    It was a nightmare.

    It was like going to sleep, falling into a nightmare dream, and not being able to wake up. You know, often, we do that, right? We go to sleep, and we wake up and say, hey, I had a bad dream, and it's over in a matter of seconds or however long that dream lasts.

    But, for me, that nightmare was 23 years. And so that's the best way I can explain it. It was a living nightmare.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Did you ever think that you wouldn't get out? Did you ever think, I'm going to give up hope?

  • Ricky Kidd:

    In the far back of your mind, you do. You know the stats, that less than 1 percent are ever successful on appeals after conviction.

    But the other — or, rather, the larger part of your mind is, I can't — I can't afford to think that I won't get out, because then there would be no reason to fight. So…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sean, let me ask you about this, because Ricky was defended by the public defense system in his case. They are the front-line lawyers we chronicle in our podcast.

    We should mention you worked as a public defender for years in the '80s, before leaving that line of work.

    When you saw Ricky's case and what had happened, what did you see that said to you this deserves a second look?

  • Sean O’Brien:

    Well, first of all, Dan Grothaus, the investigator who brought the case to me, he had looked into the case and made a very compelling case.

    Then I went and met his alibi witnesses, Ricky's alibi witnesses, and they were solid, absolutely solid. And then, of course, you know, the prosecutor is someone who is herself a red flag for wrongful convictions.

    So, when I saw the whole picture, I couldn't not step in at that point.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ricky, help us understand what it was like when you connect with Sean, and for the first time someone is telling you, I believe what you're saying, I think there's something here.

    What was that like for you?

  • Ricky Kidd:

    It was — it was amazing.

    I worked hard for 10 years trying to get somebody to pay attention to my case. And when Sean, who we are — a lot of us knew to be a good lawyer, a good advocate for those who are innocent and on death row, it was exciting. It was exciting.

    I felt like he was my superhero out of the Marvel Comics. And I say that all the time, that today's superheroes wear dresses and suit coats, and not tights and capes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Sean O’Brien:

    You don't want that mental picture.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ricky Kidd:

    He certainly is my hero. He certainly is my hero. I thank him so much every day, and the rest of the team who fought and worked and never gave up.

    It's easy not to give up on yourself when others have not given up on you, and, so, yes, definitely a superhero.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sean, I got to ask you, too.

    I guess the question everyone has is, why does it take so long for those kinds of convictions to be undone once they're done?

  • Sean O’Brien:

    I'm still asking that question.

    You know, it was way too easy to convict an innocent person, and it's way harder than it should be to prove that he's innocent and get him released.

    You know, if you're innocent, you should never quit. You know, your innocence will get you free someday. And it's the someday part that was hard in this case.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But you know this system inside and out.

    Are there things, are there reforms that could be put into place right now that would prevent things like this from happening to people like Ricky?

  • Sean O’Brien:

    Yes.

    And there are too many to talk about, but the first starting point is a decent public defender system. If we put public defenders on parity with prosecutors, then we wouldn't be having this discussion today.

    If public defenders had the resources, the salaries, the caseloads of the prosecutors they're up against, we'd have a level playing field, and it would make a ton of difference.

    This case is a good example, because Ricky's lawyer is not a bad lawyer, but she was outgunned by a prosecutor who was unscrupulous, but knew that, because of her overworked opposition, that she could get away with things that she couldn't get away with if there was a well-staffed defender system on the other side.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ricky, you are a free man.

  • Ricky Kidd:

    I am.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have been out for about over three months now?

  • Ricky Kidd:

    A hundred and 11 days now.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Not that you're counting.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ricky Kidd:

    I'm not counting.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How are you? What are your plans? What do you want to do?

  • Ricky Kidd:

    I'm great. I'm great.

    I want to add my voice to the cry for justice reform. I have had opportunities to touch six states now since I have been home. And most of those travels have been advocacy work, speaking out on the behalf, trying to be the voice of those who are voiceless.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You are not turning away from the last two decades of your life. It sounds like you are leaning into it. You're not angry about that time.

  • Ricky Kidd:

    No, not angry in a sense of where it can be destructive.

    I have learned how to turn my anger into passion. But we should be angry that taxpayers are spending billions and hundreds of millions of dollars keeping the wrong person in prison. And so I don't want people to misconstrue, because I'm happy and I'm full of joy and excitement today, that the anger has dissipated.

    It has not. It's turned into passion for me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, we are so happy to have you here today, to have both of you here today.

    Ricky Kidd and Sean O'Brien, thank you so much.

  • Ricky Kidd:

    Thank you so much.

  • Sean O’Brien:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And all five episodes of "Broken Justice" are out now.

    You can listen on our Web site or wherever you get your podcasts.

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