A federal judge has awarded more than $ 344,000 in attorneys’ fees to a former prisoner who sued the Justice Department for seeking an answer to a 1988 explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters he spent nearly 22 years in prison.
Bryan Sheppard, who maintains his innocence in the explosion, filed the case after his release in 2017. He requested under the Freedom of Information Act to have records revealed that stemmed from a federal review of the case. This review was prompted by a Kansas City Star investigation that raised questions about whether federal investigators were involved in fraud.
“This case is not about whether Star’s allegations are in fact true, or whether the five people convicted of the 1988 arson are actually innocent,” Sheppard’s lawyers wrote in the lawsuit, which was filed in the western district of Missouri in December. 2017. “Instead, it is about whether a federal government body reviewing the actions of its own investigators and prosecutors should be allowed to unilaterally conclude, without any public review or accountability, that the agency and its staff have done nothing wrong.”
Sheppard was among five people convicted in the November 29, 1988 blast at a construction site along U.S. Route 71 near 87th Street. Prosecutors claimed Sheppard, 17 at the time of the arson, conspired with four other co-defendants to steal tools to sell for drug money and set fire to a tractor-trailer in the early morning hours.
In March 2017, Sheppard, who was the youngest of the defendants, was released from prison. He had received a new sentencing after the US Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that it is unconstitutional to sentence young people to life sentences without first taking into account their individual characteristics and life history.
No physical evidence bound the five defendants to the arson.
Reporting of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning Star reporter Mike McGraw highlighted discrepancies in the case. He questioned witnesses who said they had been forced by authorities. A key witness said she was pressured to lie about questioning her mother, who was convicted, and the others who were planning a theft at the construction site.
Some of the jurors who voted to convict one of the defendants have admitted that they believed in her innocence, McGraw reported. They said they found her guilty because they mistakenly thought it would release the other defendants if they released her.
McGraw’s investigation led to a review of the case by the Department of Justice.
In 2011, the Justice Department said it found information not previously known to prosecutors that suggested other people “may have been involved in the arson.” No one else was charged, however.
Sheppard sought records kept by the Department of Justice regarding its investigation. In the civil lawsuit, U.S. District Court Judge Nanette K. Laughrey issued earlier rulings finding that the Department of Justice was wrongfully withholding documents requested by Sheppard.
In total, Sheppard was awarded $ 344,122 in attorneys’ fees to be paid by the Department of Justice under an order issued Tuesday by Laughrey. Attorneys for Sheppard had requested $ 444,314 in fees.