Kansas City Police detective Robert Blehm is probably good at what he does. But on Friday, at an evidentiary hearing to determine if convicted murderer Keith Carnes deserves a new trial, Blehm’s testimony left a lot to be desired.
And that’s not the only thing that cast doubt on Carnes’ guilt. Two people who told police they saw Carnes stand over Larry White and shoot him five times lied. No physical evidence even ties the Kansas City man to the crime.
Lorianne Morrow testified in Carnes’ original trial that she saw Carnes shoot White at least five times after White collapsed in the parking lot of a fish restaurant near 29th Street and Prospect Avenue on Oct. 6, 2003, after a foot chase.
She later recanted her story.
Morrow, 57, admitted on Thursday that she lied as a state witness. She said she was coerced by then-Jackson County Assistant Prosecutor Amy McGowan to finger Carnes as the triggerman. After White’s limp body fell to the pavement, Carnes “rolled him over and shot him some more. Probably about five more times,” Morrow testified.
“I lied then, but I’m not lying now,” Morrow, an admitted former drug addict, said on the stand Friday. Later, she said: “Wrong is wrong. It’s off my chest now. I had to do this.”
Physical evidence shows fatal shot was from a distance
Another purported eyewitness retracted her previous recantation. Wendy Lockett initially told police she witnessed Carnes kill White. Almost 15 years later, she recanted her testimony in a sworn affidavit witnessed and signed by former Kansas City police board Commissioner Alvin Brooks, who appeared in court Friday.
Last week, Lockett switched stories again, pointing at Carnes as the killer. Her testimony was full of inconsistencies and half-truths, defense attorney Kent Gipson said. Testimony from Brooks seemed to back the claim Lockett wasn’t being truthful about what she knew about the case.
But the most damaging testimony came from Blehm, the Kansas City homicide detective. At one point Friday, under cross-examination from Gipson, Blehm tried to explain why no shell casings were found near White’s body or in the restaurant’s parking lot. His explanation defied logic.
In all, 12 spent rounds from an AK-47 assault rifle were recovered nearby in the 2800 block of Wabash Avenue. Another round was found about 40 yards west of Prospect on 29th Street, according to testimony from Blehm, who was the lead detective in the case. The distance suggests the final shot was not fired at close range.
“The absence of shell casings from a primary crime scene would not be strange,” Blehm said under oath. “Shell casings can fly, hit hard objects and move or they can roll onto sidewalks.”
An ambulance or other emergency vehicles could have run over the shell casings, Blehm shamelessly continued.
Hardly any forensic evidence exists that backup Blehm’s theory. The concrete where White’s body was recovered was not damaged, according to testimony, and former Jackson County Medical Examiner Thomas Gill testified in 2006 that the shot to the head that killed White was fired from a distance.
It is almost impossible that Carnes shot White while standing over his body. That Carnes was convicted of first-degree murder and armed criminal action in a 2006 bench trial before Jackson County Judge Gene R. Martin and sentenced to life in prison without parole is a travesty. Questions remain as to Carnes’ guilt. He had exhausted all appeals, but with new witnesses coming forward over the last few years, the Missouri Supreme Court granted Carnes a hearing before Special Master William Hickle, an associate circuit court judge from Phelps County.
At least two dozen supporters were in attendance at a two-day evidentiary hearing last week to introduce testimony never heard before from several witnesses who said Carnes was not the person responsible for gunning down White.
“Not unless he’s a superhero that can be in two places at one time,” Vernette Bell, of Kansas City, said when asked in open court if Carnes was the shooter. Bell ducked from bullets to avoid being shot that night, she said. Soon after, Carnes pulled her inside to safety in a nearby apartment not too far from the crime scene, she testified.
“He was with me” at the time of the shooting, Bell said.
Multiple witnesses identify different suspect as killer
The hearing was contentious at times. It included testimony from admitted former drug addicts and a disgraced former prosecutor so full of excuses that it made a courtroom full of Carnes’ supporters moan in agony over the lack of accountability.
In an unusual move, McGowan was issued a subpoena to testify. She denied she coerced anyone into blaming Carnes for the murder. McGowan was a prosecutor in Jackson County for 17 years before she moved to Douglas County, Kansas, to serve as an assistant district attorney in 2005. She retired under scrutiny in 2019. Several of her convictions have been overturned in recent years. She has been accused of prosecutorial misconduct on more than one occasion. Her law license is under review in both Kansas and Missouri.
“I said what I had to say in there,” McGowan said when asked why she failed to own up to what she called minor errors on her part in the past as a prosecutor.
A man named Reginald Thomas was the real killer, more than one witness testified last week. Thomas took the stand Thursday but before he was questioned by an attorney for Carnes, was advised by Hickle to seek counsel so that he would not implicate himself in the crime. Thomas returned the next day with a court-appointed lawyer and denied under oath any involvement in the violent crime.
“No, I did not,” Thomas said when asked by Gipson if he killed White. Thomas initially refused to answer the question and invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Hickle will determine the facts of the case, including newly introduced testimony and evidence not available during two previous trials, the first of which ended in a hung jury. He will forward his recommendation to the state Supreme Court, which would determine if Carnes deserves a new trial. I’m convinced a reasonable jury would not have convicted Carnes of murder if the evidence presented in court this week had been introduced nearly two decades ago.
“It’s abundantly clear that both eyewitnesses were lying,” Gipson said in closing arguments. “The physical evidence doesn’t lie. Witnesses lie all the time. Keith Carnes didn’t commit this crime.”
As a matter of justice and fairness, Carnes deserves a new trial after more than 18 years behind bars.