When Latahra Smith’s son was wrongfully accused of capital murder in Texas in 2008, she realized just how easily a person could be wrongfully convicted of a crime.

“That would have been my first encounter with what I consider to be an unjust justice system,” Smith said. That was enough to persuade Smith to study law, become a paralegal and work on her son’s case, which was eventually dismissed just days before the trial.

In 2013, Smith organized the KC Freedom Project, a ministry dedicated to helping people behind bars. She obtained a criminal investigator’s license to begin advocating for those who may have been wrongfully convicted and to go after corrupt prosecutors. She’s been hard at work on those causes ever since.

Despite the COVID-19, Smith and her team of protesters have been active fighting bad prosecutors. Besides Kansas City, this spring they’ve taken their protests on the road to Topeka and Lawrence, KS. They don’t roll in small numbers, Smith is known for loading up a busload of protesters, dressing them in bright and noticeable t-shirts, and providing lunch and door prizes in support of those who are supporting others.

One of KC Freedom’s first and longest cases has been their fight for Keith Carnes, who is currently serving a life sentence for the 2003 murder of 24-year-old Larry White, who was gunned down in a parking lot near 29th and Prospect. Even though Smith has uncovered considerable new evidence and perjured testimony suggesting that Carnes is innocent, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker still refuses to give Carnes a new trial.

That’s certainly helped make Baker and her team at the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office a frequent focus of KC Freedom’s regular protests. Last month, KC Freedom was once again protesting Baker for “mishandling of police brutality cases” and “protecting police officers who commit murder.”

Smith has also called for Baker to establish a Conviction Integrity Unit to review questionable cases where new evidence may have been found or in which prosecutorial misconduct may have been discovered.

Baker has established a Conviction Review Board, which Smith says is a poor replacement for an independent Conviction Integrity Unit. "There is no true justice without prosecutor accountability and transparency,” said Smith in a statement.

Another regular focus of KC Freedom’s protests is former Jackson County prosecutor Amy McGowan who has been found guilty of prosecutorial misconduct on more than one occasion.

McGowan, who was the prosecutor on Carnes’ first trial, was also the prosecutor in the case of Ricky Kidd, who spent 23 years in prison for a 1996 double murder that he didn’t commit. The circuit court in DeKalb County, MO, concluded McGowan failed to turn over evidence that would have been useful in Kidd’s defense.

McGowan left Jackson County and moved to the Douglas County, KS, District Attorney’s office. KC Freedom followed McGowan there after uncovering a string of cases with questionable results. Earlier this month, K.C. Freedom bused in protestors from Wichita, Topeka and KC for the Lawrence-based protest.

Wichita protesters joined the rally in support of Albert Wilson, a Wichita resident and Kansas University student who was prosecuted in 2019 on a rape charge by McGowan. Despite conflicting statements and no DNA evidence, Wilson was found guilty. Wilson, who was accused of raping a young White female, was up against an all-White jury who found him guilty despite the lack of seminal DNA evidence and inconsistency between surveillance video and the victim’s testimony.

In addition to Wilson’s case, KC Freedom Project is calling on Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson to create a Conviction Integrity Unit to review all cases McGowan handled in his office, including the cases of Allen Dale Smith and Shanna Friday. Smith was convicted in 2008 for murder during a burglary and is serving life in prison. During his trial, McGowan made statements that were improper during the closing statement. In an appeal of his case, the statements were reported as misconduct, but the court upheld the prior conviction.

In 2008, Shanna Friday was convicted of reckless second-degree murder in a beating death that occurred after an evening of drinking. With little supporting evidence of Friday’s role in the beating, McGowan pushed for felony murder charges, but the judge agreed the evidence supported the lesser charges.

Following persistent protest from KC Freedom and the overturning of the Kidd conviction, McGowan retired in October 2019, but Smith and her group persist. They want McGowan disbarred, so KC Freedom protesters headed to Topeka to protest outside the Kansas Board of Discipline of Attorneys. The organization doesn’t have a good reputation of disbarring attorneys who are found on the bad side of the law, so that gave Smith and her crew even more motivation to bring attention to the issue.

If Branson and Baker don’t agree to establish Conviction Integrity Units and review all of McGowan’s cases, you can bet, KC Freedom will be on their doorsteps again and again, protesting and demanding change.

“If they don’t, then that should tell the people in both of those counties exactly what their district attorney or prosecutor is about,” Smith said, “and I can tell you this, it’s not justice.”

KC Freedom Project receives some funding from donors, but Smith has often had to pay for some expenses herself to continue the group’s work.

To donate, use their Cashapp: $KCFreedomProject. To get involved, follow the group on Facebook.

Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering Kansas City’s African-American community.

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