KC lawyer's evidence key in death-penalty case

Report: Missourian executed 10 years ago innocent of murder
By TONY RIZZO The Kansas City Star

Larry Griffin shouldn’t be a cause. He should be alive.

Kansas City lawyer Kent Gipson believes that today, and he believed it 10 years ago when he tried unsuccessfully to keep the state of Missouri from putting Griffin to death.

Now, evidence found more than a decade ago by Gipson and his partner, Sean O’Brien, forms the foundation of a report by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund that concludes Griffin was innocent of the 1980 murder of a St. Louis drug dealer for which he was executed.
The report, made public last week, is being cited by anti-death-penalty advocates as potentially the first documented case of an innocent person being put to death in the United States since the reinstatement of capital punishment in the 1970s.

The news has prompted the St. Louis circuit attorney to reopen an investigation into the case.
That’s little consolation to the lawyers who believed Griffin when it could have made a difference.

“I think he would be out now instead of dead,” Gipson said.

The new report hasn’t changed Gordon Ankney’s mind about Griffin, however. Now a lawyer in private practice in St. Louis, Ankney prosecuted Griffin and said the report omitted “strong evidence” of Griffin’s guilt.

He doesn’t put much credence in witnesses who are changing their stories 25 years after the fact.

Samuel Gross, the law school professor at the University of Michigan who led the NAACP fund’s yearlong investigation, said Gipson and O’Brien suggested that the Griffin case be investigated.
Gipson, who works with O’Brien in Kansas City’s Public Interest Litigation Clinic, said they began representing Griffin in the early 1990s when his appeal options were all but exhausted. He said they didn’t have to scratch the surface of Griffin’s case deeply to find real problems with the evidence.

“There were a lot of things that stunk to high heaven in this case,” he said.

There was no physical evidence tying Griffin to the shooting, and the state’s key eyewitness who identified Griffin at trial was a career criminal and “professional snitch” who had been relocated to St. Louis as part of the witness protection program, according to Gipson.

When Griffin went to trial, the witness was jailed on felony credit-card fraud charges.
“The day Larry was convicted, he got out of jail for time served,” Gipson said.

In an effort to win a new trial, Gipson and O’Brien hired an investigator who tracked down the witness. He recanted part of his trial testimony in a federal court hearing and admitted he had lied when he said he could positively identify Griffin.

Griffin’s attorneys also found another witness who claimed that he took part in the killing and that Griffin was not involved.

“I thought we had a pretty strong case of innocence,” Gipson said.

But efforts to win a new trial were rejected by federal and state courts.

“It was very disheartening how short a shrift they gave our case,” he said. “We lost at every turn.”

Gipson also said that political factors in play at the time may have overshadowed Griffin’s claims.

The state’s last execution by lethal injection before Griffin was “botched,” and it took about 30 minutes for the man to die. Gipson said he thought state authorities were eager to show that an execution could be properly carried out.

For Gipson, the final disappointment before Griffin was put to death on June 21, 1995, was that Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan was out of the country when they sought to have him intervene to stop the execution.

Gipson and O’Brien were unable to locate one witness who was wounded in the same shooting, but investigators for the NAACP project found him in California, and he told them Griffin was not one of the killers.

The first officer on the scene was also contacted and contradicted testimony he had given at trial.

For Ankney, the case against Griffin was a strong one. Shortly before the shooting, Griffin was seen nearby getting into the car used in the crime, he said.

New statements by witnesses are not credible, he said. The California witness, for instance, gave conflicting stories at the time and provided a false address so he could not be found to testify at trial.

The alibi defense presented by Griffin at trial was found to be false, Ankney said, and evidence that Griffin had attempted to kill the same man at the same location about a month earlier was presented at trial.

Quintin Moss, the man Griffin was convicted of killing, was a suspect in the killing of Griffin’s brother six months earlier.

Ankney also said that after Griffin’s trial for the Moss killing, Griffin pleaded guilty to committing another murder in the same neighborhood. A presentence report counted 12 prior convictions, and he was described as a “serious threat to society.”

“I don’t think there’s anything to it,” Ankney said of the new report.

Gipson said that Griffin was “no choir boy.”

But he said he was convinced Griffin did not kill Moss.

“A lot of guys claim innocence, and I always look at them with a very skeptical eye. I’m no pushover,” Gipson said. “This one got me on a gut level.”