Man convicted in 1988 explosion that killed 6 KC firefighters wins $344K in records suit

By Luke Nozicka and Bill Lukitsch January 27, 2022 Kansas City Star

A federal judge has awarded more than $344,000 in legal fees to a former prisoner who sued the Justice Department seeking answers about a 1988 explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters, for which he spent nearly 22 years in prison.

Bryan Sheppard, who maintains his innocence in the explosion, filed the lawsuit after his release in 2017. He petitioned under the Freedom of Information Act, seeking the disclosure of records stemming from a federal review of the case. That review was prompted by a Kansas City Star investigation that raised questions about whether federal investigators engaged in misconduct.

“This case is not about whether the Star’s allegations are indeed true or whether the five individuals convicted of the 1988 arson are actually innocent,” Sheppard’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit, filed in the Western District of Missouri in December 2017. “Instead, it is about whether a federal government agency reviewing the actions of its own investigators and prosecutors, should be allowed to conclude unilaterally, without any public review or accountability, that the agency and its personnel have done nothing wrong.”

Sheppard was among five convicted in the Nov. 29, 1988, explosion at a construction site along U.S. Route 71 near 87th Street. Prosecutors argued that 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 hours of the morning.

In March 2017, Sheppard, who was the youngest of the defendants, was released from prison. He had been granted a new sentencing hearing after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that it is unconstitutional to impose mandatory life sentences on juveniles without first taking into account their individual characteristics and life history. 

No physical evidence tied the five defendants to the arson.

Reporting by the late, Pulitzer Prize-winning Star reporter Mike McGraw spotlighted inconsistencies in the case. He interviewed witnesses who said they were coerced by authorities. A key witness said she was pressured to lie about overhearing her mother, who was convicted, and the others planning a theft at the construction site.

Some of the jurors who voted to convict one of the defendants have acknowledged they believed in her innocence, McGraw reported. They said they found her guilty because they wrongly believed letting her go would set the other defendants free. McGraw’s investigation prompted a Justice Department review of the case.

In 2011, the Justice Department said it found information, not previously known to prosecutors, that suggested other people “may have been involved in the arsons.” No one else, however, was charged.

Sheppard sought records kept by the Justice Department concerning its investigation. In the civil lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Nanette K. Laughrey issued earlier rulings that found the Justice Department improperly withheld documents requested by Sheppard. In total, Sheppard was awarded $344,122 in attorneys’ fees to be paid by the Justice Department under an order issued Tuesday by Laughrey. Lawyers for Sheppard had requested $444,314 in fees.

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