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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Exonerated former prisoners speak at MU

An MU graduate's research led to Joshua Kezer's release.

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Dennis Fritz signs a copy of his book 'Journey Toward Justice' for Deanna Harper on Wednesday. The book recounts Fritz's experience after he was arrested and convicted for a murder he did not commit.

Will Guldin/Senior Staff Photographer

March 5, 2009

Corrected 03/12/2009 at 3:55 p.m. In the March 5 report "Exonerated former prisoners speak at MU", the reason for Joshua Keser's exoneration was inaccurate. Keser was exonerated because of the discovery of new evidence for the case. The Maneater regrets the error.

After being released from prison 16 days earlier, Joshua Kezer spoke at MU about what it was like to be wrongly incarcerated for the same number of years.

Kezer and Dennis Fritz, who served 12 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of murder, described their experiences to students at a lecture in the Arts and Sciences Building Wednesday night.

Both were convicted of murder and subsequently freed after DNA evidence cleared them of all charges. Kezer and Fritz maintained their innocence throughout their prison sentences. Fritz said he had never even met the person he was accused of murdering.

"The implication of me being remotely involved in something I didn't even know about, let alone a murder charge, was something that -- it disturbed me greatly," Fritz said.

Fritz's case was recounted by novelist John Grisham in the non-fiction book "The Innocent Man."

The combined 28 years the two men served in prison have given them resolve to raise awareness about other innocent people who may still be behind bars.

"The reality is that there are men in prison right now that have stories to tell, that have claims of innocence, many of which I know personally," Kezer said.

A bill has been proposed in the Missouri Legislature this year that could help exonerate some of these innocent people. The bill would place a moratorium on all executions in the state for two to three years. This time could then be used to re-examine inmates' cases for inconsistencies or new evidence that could lead to an acquittal.

Jeff Stack, coordinator for Mid-Missouri Fellowship for Reconciliation, said while the bill was far from abolishment of the death penalty, any opportunity to reexamine past cases was valuable.

"I was fortunate to not be on death row, but I could've ended up there," Kezer said. "The purpose of this is to remember that if there's innocent people who've spent years in prison standing before you now, talking about how their cases were overturned, then there are innocent people on death row."

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, the total number of death row inmates in the U.S. exonerated through the use of new testimony or evidence has risen to 130. There have been three in Missouri.

Leslie Ferguson, mother of Ryan Ferguson, a convicted murderer who maintains that he is innocent, said the moratorium law means a lot to someone in her situation.

"When you experience it first hand there is no way that you can condone the death penalty," Ferguson said. "I mean it has been proven that innocent people have been executed and it's found out after their execution they were innocent, and that should never happen. It's a scary thing. If Ryan, or Dennis, or Josh can get convicted of a crime it can happen to anybody, it can happen to you."

In the Missouri Legislature, the Senate version of the moratorium bill cleared the Senate Progress and Development Committee on Wednesday while the House version has been referred to the Public Safety Committee, and no hearing has been set.

Kezer said he hopes the legislation passes, so that other innocent people wrongfully incarcerated could also get a second chance.

"Let's pray that something is done, to give people the opportunity to tell their story before they're dead and they just become some kind of history, some remembered name, some memorial," Kezer said. "I'd rather see them out here living a productive life, teaching us, learning from them, than just wasting away with nothing to look forward but liquids running through their veins."

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