Justice on Fire

The Kansas City Firefighters Case and the Railroading of the Marlborough Five

J. Patrick O'Connor

On the night of November 29, 1988, near the impoverished Marlborough neighborhood in south Kansas City, an explosion at a construction site killed six of the city’s firefighters. It was a clear case of arson, and five people from Marlborough were duly convicted of the crime. But for veteran crime writer and crusading editor J. Patrick O’Connor, the facts—or a lack of them—didn’t add up. Justice on Fire is OConnor’s detailed account of the terrible explosion that led to the firefighters’ deaths and the terrible injustice that followed. Available at KU Press and Amazon

Justice on Fire describes a misguided eight-year investigation propelled by an overzealous Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agent keen to retire; a mistake-riddled case conducted by a combative assistant US attorney willing to use compromised “snitch” witnesses and unwilling to admit contrary evidence; and a sentence of life without parole pronounced by a prosecution-favoring judge. In short, an abuse of government power and a travesty of justice. O’Connor’s own investigation, which uncovered evidence of witness tampering, intimidation, and prosecutorial misconduct, helped give rise to a front-page series of articles in the Kansas City Star—only to prompt a whitewashing inquiry by the Department of Justice that exonerated the lead ATF agent and named other possible perpetrators who remain unidentified and unindicted. O’Connor extends his scrutiny to this cover-up and arrives at a startling conclusion suggesting that the case of the Marlborough Five is far from closed.

“This is a powerful story that needs to be told—and O’Connor knows how to tell it, flashing his narrative chops from the get-go with a riveting description of the explosions. As he acknowledges, O’Connor is an ‘advocate for the five convicted,’ and it is important to view the book through that lens.”

—Daniel S. Medwed, author of Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent

“In Justice on Fire J. Patrick O’Connor shows, step-by-step, how the American criminal justice system can fail. The tragic deaths of six Kansas City firefighters in a huge commercial explosion caused by arson generated intense pressure to solve the case. Likely perpetrators slipped away in a botched investigation by local police. Five years later the investigation was turned over to the federal ATF. After a TV special broadcast a $50,000 reward, a horde of jailhouse snitches and people from the rundown Marlborough community adjacent to the blast site came forward with wild and inconsistent stories based on rumor. Federal investigators and prosecutors, using hardball tactics, pieced together a conviction against the Marlborough Five that was based on a record number of informers. Most were paid off with reduced sentences or slivers of reward money. Trial testimony was wildly inconsistent, but a biased federal judge thwarted every defense attempt to penetrate the false testimony. In the years since, many of the witnesses have recanted and a federal investigation reported that two ‘other’ perpetrators—which the government refuses to name’exist. One of the Marlborough Five died in prison and one has been released based on his status as a juvenile sentenced to life imprisonment. Three others sit in prison while the palpable facts of an obvious miscarriage of justice are hidden from view by federal authorities more concerned with saving face than doing justice.”

—Marvin Zalman, coeditor of Wrongful Conviction and Criminal Justice Reform: Making Justice

Journalists are not supposed to make the news. But faced with a gross injustice, and seeing no other remedy, O’Connor felt he must step in. Justice on Fire is such an intervention.

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