Inmate Sees Hope After 27-year Quest for Exoneration

U.S. appeals court is considering whether to order a new trial in 1977 murder case.

By Vic Ryckaert
July 3, 2005

After 27 years in prison, freedom finally may be near for an Indianapolis man some people say was wrongly convicted of killing a gas station manager in 1977.

The victim's widow is among those who concur with a late city police detective's belief that Robert Earl Badelle was not the man who killed Robert Kannapel Sr. on a cold and snowy night nearly three decades ago on the city's Near Northside.

"I been fighting to get out of prison ever since I been in prison," Badelle said last week during an interview at the Miami Correctional Facility north of Kokomo.

"It's just something about the truth, you know what I mean?" he said, sitting in an empty recreation hall with a large window looking out on a concrete recreation area. "It's just gonna keep you going."

Freedom for Badelle now rests in the hands of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which heard arguments on his case last month and is weighing a decision on whether to send Badelle's case back for a new trial.

After years of courtroom wrangling, comments by Judge Frank Easterbrook of the federal appellate court are fueling Badelle's and his attorney's optimism.

Easterbrook, who presided over the panel hearing Badelle's appeal, fired questions at the deputy attorney general representing prosecutors in the case. He said the Indiana Court of Appeals might have violated prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings when it failed to overturn Badelle's conviction after expressing doubts about the evidence in the case.

"We take court statements seriously when they favor the prosecutor; I don't see why we shouldn't take them seriously when they favor the defense," Easterbrook said. "The magic phrase is it (the Indiana court's ruling) contradicts the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States."

Badelle's lawyer, Sarah Nagy, has been on a crusade since 1999 to convince the court system that Badelle, now 52, did not kill Kannapel in 1977.

"Everybody kind of decided he was expendable because he was a street punk," Nagy said. "Nobody thought it was worth it to take this case to the mat."

Prosecution under attack

Badelle's case is a tangle of conflicting witness testimony and accusations of mistakes or incompetence on the part of investigators. Making matters more confusing, many of the witnesses who testified at Badelle's two trials in 1979 are now dead, and much of the evidence has been lost or destroyed.

Kannapel was shot to death Dec. 5, 1977, at a Texaco station at 16th and Meridian streets. Kannapel had allowed his killer to enter the station, against Texaco rules, because it was so cold and snowy that night.

While maintaining his innocence, Badelle admits he was no angel back then.

Born Dec. 22, 1952, in Jackson, Miss., he was raised along with four siblings by a single mother. He spent much of his youth moving between Mississippi and Indianapolis.

He seldom attended school. At age 14, he injected heroin -- he pronounces it "hair-ron" -- for the first time. He said the high made him feel very relaxed.

Badelle described himself as "a stickup man" who robbed pimps, drug dealers and others "in the game."

"I wasn't really out for the hard-working man's money," he said. "I dealt with people that were in the jungle. If you in the jungle and something happens to you, that's how it be."

Three months after Kannapel's slaying, Badelle, then 25, was arrested for violating his probation on an earlier robbery conviction. Eventually he was charged with killing Kannapel. He was tried and found guilty in January 1979.

But Marion Superior Court Judge Webster L. Brewer threw out that conviction because the state had withheld evidence. Badelle was convicted a second time and sentenced in July 1979 to 60 years in prison.

Arrested three months after the crime, he said he couldn't remember where he was on the night of the gas station killing.

Badelle's lawyer says police withheld vital evidence during that second trial, too, evidence about a possible alibi that she thinks would have linked another man to the slaying. There was some indication Badelle was in an Indianapolis hotel recovering from a severe beating.

Nagy has submitted reams of documents filling four boxes and has called 44 witnesses to testify in her efforts to prove Badelle is innocent.

Deputy Attorney General James Martin said Nagy is defending her client by flooding the court system with paper in support of a "wide-reaching conspiracy theory." He said it is a typical strategy for appeals.

"If you don't have anything, you just dig up everything," Martin said. "You dig and dig and hope that somebody wants to speculate about something."

Several witnesses pointed to Badelle and called him the killer, Martin added, noting there is nothing to suggest Badelle was unfairly tried.

"I think the identifications were solid," Martin said. "They (the witnesses) were there, and I'm sure Mr. Badelle was the guy."

A detective's doubts

Badelle has always insisted police arrested the wrong man. Many others have expressed their own doubts.

James Highbaugh, an Indianapolis Police Department detective, testified for the defense during Badelle's trials and was punished by the department for failing to get permission from his supervisors to testify.

Highbaugh said Badelle was innocent and that a man nicknamed "Pee Wee" had killed Kannapel. His involvement in the case got him suspended and later fired after he publicly criticized department officials. Highbaugh died in 1982, at age 37, while working as a security guard and fighting to win back his job.

The lead detective in the case, Dennis Morgan, also had reservations about Badelle's guilt, according to some who knew him.

JoAnne Wood, the victim's sister-in-law, said she had an affair with Morgan while he was investigating the case.

She said Morgan told her he did not care whether Badelle had killed Kannapel.

"He said to me that Badelle was a no-good-for-nothing and he didn't feel bad if Badelle got set up for it because he had done other things and gotten by with it," Wood, who lives in Somerset, Ky., said in an interview last week. "He was like making a judgment there. He had no right to do that."

Morgan, 49, died in 1995 after being hit by a car near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Wood, 60, said she still remembers Badelle standing up after his conviction and maintaining his innocence while expressing his regrets to Kannapel's family.

"That has haunted me all these years," she said. "A cold-blooded killer doesn't care about how the family feels. I just don't think he did it."

The case has divided the Kannapel family. Robert Kannapel Jr. was at the gas station before the slaying and saw the killer with his father. He pointed at Badelle during the trial and still believes Badelle is the murderer. He declined to be interviewed.

But Lena Kannapel, his mother and Robert Sr.'s widow, thinks Badelle was wrongly convicted.

"I think that the prosecutor's office and IPD owe Badelle a very large apology because they can't give back all the years he's lost," Lena Kannapel said. "Nobody can."

What might have been

Badelle said he has devoted his time in prison to reading law books and studying his case.

"It has consumed me, man," he said, gesturing broadly with thin arms and long fingers. "It was my whole life, trying to prove my innocence."

Tight braids of black and gray run along Badelle's scalp. Large gold-framed bifocals sit on his thin, round face. His top teeth are dentures, but the four or five teeth left on the bottom are real.

He lost most of his teeth before his murder conviction, in a brawl with a man swinging a crowbar.

Prison is full of dangers, he said, but he's done his best to avoid trouble.

Badelle is as close to a model prisoner as anyone could find at Miami, according to prison spokeswoman Ann Hubbard. He has four disciplinary write-ups, she said, the most serious for tobacco possession.

Now and then, Badelle ponders what his life might have been.

"I probably could have been a wine-head in the streets. I probably could have been dead," he said. "I probably could have been one of the richest black men in Indiana, but I ain't get the chance. They took my life."

Badelle has four daughters and seven or eight grandchildren he barely knows. He said he started building a relationship with them about seven years ago.

"My momma done died, half of my family done died, my kids don't even know me," Badelle said, his eyes dampening. "Boy, this place have a way of just taking everything you ever got, everything you ever loved, everything that you wanted to love. You know what I mean? This system has a way of just taking all that from you."