• The prosecutor for the Missouri case of Ricky Kidd, who was exonerated, and the Kansas case of Albert Wilson, who many feel was railroaded, is set for a disciplinary hearing early next month.
CORRECTION: The photo graphic for this story originally and incorrectly pictured current Jackson County, Mo., Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker instead of ex-prosecutor Amy McGowan. The error has been corrected; McGowan is now pictured above. We apologize for any confusion.
Amy McGowan, who was the lead assistant prosecutor in the Ricky Kidd case in 1996, which was overturned last year, and the lead prosecutor in the rape case of University of Kansas student Albert Wilson, will go before a Missouri disciplinary panel on Oct. 2.
The panel, appointed by the Supreme Court of Missouri, oversees and reviews the ethical conduct of lawyers in Missouri. This hearing will reach a recommendation for discipline – if any – on McGowan’s alleged misconduct in the Kidd case. Authorization for the hearing was given following an initial review of the allegations of McGowan’s misconduct by Missouri chief disciplinary counsel Alan D. Pratzel, who found “probable cause” to move ahead with the disciplinary hearing.
In the case against McGowan, she is accused of failing to disclose to Kidd’s counsel – an appointed public defender – information or evidence known to her that would have indicated Kidd’s innocence.
Based on the hearing panel’s recommendation, the Supreme Court of Missouri will issue the final determination of any disciplinary action. Possible actions range from disbarment, which would revoke her license to practice, suspension for a time period, or public reprimand.
In McGowan’s response to the allegations, she disputes that any of her actions were against trial rules of conduct and that any of the evidence or information she is accused of withholding would have “negated the guilt” of Kidd.
The Ricky Kidd Case
In 1996, Kidd was convicted of the double-homicide of George Bryant and Oscar Bridges. Neighbors saw three men enter Bryant’s home, heard gun shots and saw the men flee the house. Witness Richard Harris claimed he saw Kidd shoot Bryant, but inconsistent descriptions he gave at trial didn’t match Kidd, the St. Louis American reported. And though testimonies described seeing three men, only two were charged.
Despite having solid alibis, Kidd became a suspect after Marcus Merrill. The cases of the two men were combined and they were tried together.
Marcus Merrill was one of a group of three men – with Gary Goodspeed Sr. and Gary Goodspeed Jr. – who flew from Georgia to Kansas City shortly before the murder. Merrill was connected to the crime by witnesses, and Kidd became a prime suspect in the murder based on Harris’ account and because he was one of 10 men named in anonymous calls to police, despite having alibis and no physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene.
Kidd’s attorney made it clear she wanted to have the Goodspeeds testify in a deposition. When their deposition was scheduled, Kidd’s attorney did not attend because she wasn’t notified. In addition, she claims she was not made aware of the existence of the deposition transcript, which both McGowan and Merrill’s attorney attended.
The Goodspeeds were not charged with murder, even though they testified they were with Merrill at the time of the crime and that Kidd wasn’t. Eventually, Merrill pleaded guilty to the crime. Kidd always maintained his innocence.
Among several other allegations of misconduct, McGowan is accused of not disclosing to Kidd’s attorney that the Goodspeeds were allegedly threatening witnesses in Kansas City and were under surveillance by police. Under the Brady Rule, prosecutors have a duty to disclose any evidence that is favorable to the defendant.
Kidd and Merrill were both found guilty and sentenced to life without parole.
While in prison, Kidd worked to get his conviction overturned or reheard. In 2003, Kidd had exhausted all of his appeals, when Merrill admitted that he and the Goodspeeds committed the crime. That wasn’t enough to get Kidd out of jail. Instead, a judge ruled Merrill only came forward to cut his sentence.
Then in 2019, 23 years after Kidd’s conviction, UMKC law professor Sean O’Brien and the Midwest Innocence Project legal team finally helped Kidd get exonerated. With Harris’ admission that he falsely identified Kidd combined with information on McGowan’s failure to disclose evidence that would have helped Kidd’s defense, Dekalb County Circuit Court Judge Daren Adkins dismissed Kidd’s case.
So far, Kidd has not received compensation from the state for the years he spent in prison because compensation in Missouri is only given to people cleared through DNA evidence, and he cannot sue McGowan because prosecutors are immune from lawsuits.
Who’s at Fault?
“There is seldom only one cause for a wrongful conviction,” said O’Brien.
Kidd, like so many Missourians who lack resources, was provided a public defender, who are notoriously overworked and have limited time to give to solidifying their client’s defense. Missouri defenders are so overworked that in 2017, the ACLU filed a class-action lawsuit against Missouri’s struggling public-defender system, highlighting that the system is overwhelmed with a small number of public defenders who are required to take on too many cases, leading to the inadequate defense of lower-income Missourians.
“In this case, it is a combination of a zealous, skilled prosecutor against an overworked public defender who is a decent person, not a bad lawyer, but was outgunned by a prosecutor who took full advantage of the public defender’s limitations,” O’Brien said about Kidd’s attorney. “Ideally, a good trial lawyer will catch a cheating prosecutor before the conviction happens.”
In a document dismissing Kidd’s conviction, Judge Adkins pointed the blame more toward McGowan than the public defender
Adkins wrote that had McGowan disclosed the depositions to Kidd’s lawyer, his counsel could have used them to subpoena the Goodspeeds to testify, which would have been favorable to Kidd’s defense.
“Ms. McGowan knew or should have known that she had an obligation under Brady to disclose the depositions and most importantly the transcripts,” Adkins wrote.
McGowan’s Long History
of alleged Misconduct
Members of the KC Freedom project argue McGowan’s misconduct stretches over the 20 years she worked in the Jackson County, Mo., major crime unit.
McGowan was accused of withholding evidence in the 2002 case of Richard Buchli. That case was overturned and Buchli, who was convicted of killing his law partner, was exonerated in 2012.
In the 2005 case of Keith Carnes, KC Freedom Project founder Latahra Smith says her investigation has found McGowan coerced witnesses to make statements that they have since recanted.
After McGowan left Jackson County and moved to the Douglas County, KS, District Attorney’s office, she was faulted in 2013 by the Kansas Supreme Court for making improper comments during closing arguments in five different cases between 2007 and 2009 that prejudiced the jury.
She was removed from prosecuting major felony sex crime cases in Douglas County, but was later returned to them and in January 2019, she prosecuted the case of Albert Wilson, which is currently on appeal. Despite a lack of DNA or semen, and totally on testimony of he-say (Black male) versus she-say (young White female), McGowan pushed to get a conviction against Wilson for rape and a sentence of 12 years in prison.
Shortly after Kidd’s exoneration last year, McGowan announced she was retiring.
Disciplining a Prosecutor is Rare
Although McGowan has been accused of misconduct in several other cases and five of the convictions she helped secure have been overturned, disbarring a prosecutor is rare.
The Center for Public Integrity released a study in 2003 of more than 11,000 state court criminal cases across the country since 1970 where prosecutors were accused of misconduct. They found the courts reduced sentences, dismissed charges, or vacated convictions in more than 2,000 of those cases. However, only 44 prosecutors received state bar complaints, two were disbarred and 12 were suspended.
And there are racial disparities when looking at exonerees who faced misconduct. According to data from the National Registry of Exonerations, Black exonerees were slightly more likely than Whites (57% to 51%) to have been victims of official misconduct. The gap is much larger among exonerations for murder, especially those with death sentences. Prosecutors committed misconduct in 30% of those exoneration cases including not disclosing evidence, misconduct at trial and witness tampering.
In a 2015 law review article, former Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit wrote, “There are disturbing indications that a non-trivial number of prosecutors — and sometimes entire prosecutorial offices — engage in misconduct that seriously undermines the fairness of criminal trials.”
Despite the rare case of disbarring any prosecutor, members of KC Freedom Project remain hopeful McGowan will be held accountable. Smith said McGowan’s disciplinary hearing is a step in the right direction.
Jazzlyn Johnson is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice.