Brian Betts and Celester McKinney have served more than 20 years on a life sentence for a murder they say they didn’t commit. On Oct 24, they’ll return to court for an evidentiary hearing in Wyandotte County District Court that they hope will change their fates.
The cousins were convicted in the Dec. 29, 1997, murder of 17-year-old Gregory Miller in Northeast Kansas City, KS. Miller was shot 18 times with a rifle and shotgun.
It was always presented as a cut-and-dry case, until the men convinced new attorneys to take up their defense and new evidence surfaced connecting the victim to a notorious police detective with a reputation for framing innocent Black men.
In late 1997, brothers Celester and Dwayne McKinney came to Kansas City, KS, from Atlanta to help their uncle, Carter Betts, with his janitorial business, according to reporting by The Kansas City Star’s Melinda Henneberger.
The McKinneys were living with their uncle, as was Brian Betts, another of Carter Betts’ nephews. Brian Betts lived in an apartment at the rear of the house with his girlfriend and newborn son.
On the night Gregory Miller was shot, Carter Betts and the McKinneys had returned to the house around midnight after a cleaning job, while Brian Betts had been with his girlfriend and child in the back of the house. The front of the house had only one door, and it was locked from the inside with a key held by Carter Betts, and there were bars on the windows, Henneberger reported.
The shooting occurred at about 3 a.m. in the surrounding neighborhood. Neighbor Alfred Burdette Jr. called police to report the shots, and said he looked outside and saw two shooters running, with one running into the alley next to Carter Betts’ house. (He later said he saw this shooter enter the rear of the house, but an officer pointed out this was not part of the original report, according to a 2001 Kansas Supreme Court document.)
After the murder, the first arraignment held for the young men in the house was dismissed because there were no witnesses or evidence connecting the cousins to the crime, said Violet Martin, sister of Brian Betts and cousin of the McKinneys.
Carter Betts initially told police his nephews had all been asleep.
None of them had criminal records.
Unfortunately, the tables turned. Carter Betts changed his story, saying the streets were talking that he was involved with the shooting.
Brian Betts and Celester and Dwayne McKinney were all charged. They were tried separately in 1998, with Brian Betts and Celester McKinney being convicted of first-degree murder – but Dwayne McKinney was found not guilty.
The main witnesses were uncle Carter Betts and Jimmy Spencer Jr., uncle of the deceased Miller.
Spencer testified Miller came into his house and told him “Les,” which he believed was a reference to Celester McKinney, was waiting for Miller outside. Miller left the house again, and, shortly after, shots rang out.
Carter Betts testified that he saw his nephews in his basement after the murder holding firearms and they told him they’d shot Miller for breaking into the back apartment.
Since the trial, Betts has recanted his testimony, saying he was threatened by detectives and a prosecutor to create the false statement.
Ray McKinney, a Kansas City, KS, police officer and McKinney’s uncle, testified about receiving a phone call from Betts’ mother saying she believed her sons were involved in Miller’s murder, according to a 2001 Kansas Supreme Court opinion denying a retrial.
Duo Seeking Justice
Despite the conviction, the cousins have always maintained their innocence and cited errors in their prosecution and inadequate counsel.
According to Violet Martin, Brian Betts’ sister, his assigned attorney, Mark Sachse, only met with him three times before or during his trial. A few years later, Sachse was stripped of his law license after complaints from many clients.
In an earlier motion for retrial in 2001, the Kansas Supreme Court found Carter Betts’ recantation was not credible and that Jimmy Spencer Jr. did not perjure himself at trial.
Since the trial in 1998, defense attorneys have discovered that retired Kansas City, Kansas, Police Detective Roger Golbuski was uncle-by-marriage to victim Miller and brother-in-law to witness Spencer.
Golubski’s corruption has been the subject of national news stories, and he’s currently fighting federal charges.
The relationship between the victim and Golubski has been confirmed by the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s Office.
In 2020, based on these facts along with Golubski’s involvement in the case, McKinney was granted the upcoming evidentiary hearing.
The mission of the evidentiary hearing is to show the district attorney at the time knew Golubski was the uncle-by-marriage of Miller, information that wasn’t released during the trial.
From the hearing, the cousins hope to regain their freedom or a new trial. With either outcome, their voices will be heard.
Golubski is expected to testify in the hearing.
Attorney Kevin Shepard is representing Brian Betts at the hearing. Celester McKinney is being represented by attorney Sarah Swain, pro bono.
Betts and McKinney’s family believes Golubski is responsible for the murder of Miller.
Martin said the family has been searching for Spencer, in hopes that he might provide additional and helpful information in the case. The last contact info they had for him was as an inmate in the Kansas Department of Corrections.
Golubski worked for KCKPD from 1975 to 2010, and for decades was alleged to have terrorized residents, particularly for falsifying charges against Black males and sexually assaulting Black females.
In September, he was charged in federal court with civil rights violations, including the kidnapping and aggravated sexual abuse of two Wyandotte women. He’s pleaded not guilty, and is on home detention for medical issues while awaiting his next hearing on Dec. 14.
One victim of Golubski’s sadism was Lamonte McIntyre, who served 23 years in prison for a double homicide before being exonerated in 2017 based on evidence that authorities finally came to believe were erroneous testimonies pressured by Golubski. McIntyre’s wrongful conviction was so egregious that he received settlements from the State of Kansas for $1.5 million and Wyandotte County for $12.5 million.
McIntyre believes there are as many as 10 men wrongfully serving time in prison for cases Golubski was involved in.
Celester McKinney told The Kansas City Star’s Melinda Henneberger that other inmates filled him in on Golubski’s connection to the man McKinney was in prison for killing: Miller was selling drugs for Golubski but stole some for his own use and was then killed by Golubski.
Last year, in deposition for McIntyre’s civil lawsuit against Wyandotte County, Golubski was asked about having a side hustle selling drugs while being employed as a police officer, but he cited the Fifth Amendment, allowing him to avoid answering on the grounds that it might incriminate him.
Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree has said he will look at any case presented to him that involves Golubski.
Prior to the evidentiary hearing, a rally will be held outside the courthouse on Mon., Oct. 24, at 8:15 a.m. The hearing will be held at the Wyandotte County District Court Division One, 710 N. 7th St., KCK, at 9 a.m.
Simone Garza is a Report for America corps member based at The Community Voice covering the Kansas City African-American community.