Woman convicted in 1988 explosion that killed six KC firefighters denied release

This is a file video from 2008 that gives an overview of the events that led to the deaths of six firefighters, and the convictions of five people in the case. The youngest defendant in the case, Bryan Sheppard, who was 17 at the time of the explo

Despite health concerns, one of five people convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a 1988 explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters will not be granted early release due to the coronavirus.

In May Darlene Edwards, 65, petitioned for compassionate release from prison. Her attorneys argued that because of health issues — including diabetes, breathing difficulties and high blood pressure — she was at high risk if she contracted COVID-19.

Edwards was convicted alongside four others in the Nov. 29, 1988, explosion at a construction site along U.S. Route 71 near 87th Street.

Prosecutors at the time argued that the five planned to steal tools to sell for drug money and set fire to a tractor-trailer in the early hours of the morning. It blew up, killing all of the arriving firefighters. Edwards has said she is innocent.

In a ruling, Friday, Judge Fernando Gaitan of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri ruled that, while Edwards’ health and the pandemic were compelling circumstances, they did not warrant her release from prison when weighed against her crime.

“Edwards’ crime had a profound affect on this community and forever altered the lives of the fire fighters’ families,” Gaitan wrote in his denial.

The letter noted that families of the firefighters have objected to Edward’s release.

Edwards is one of many prisoners who have asked for early release due to concerns that prison conditions will facilitate the spread of the coronavirus, which can be particularly dangerous for older inmates and those with preexisting conditions.

As of Friday, more than 14,000 staff and inmates at the Federal Bureau of Prisons had tested positive for the virus since the pandemic started. Of them, 120 inmates and staff members have died.

Edwards has sought compassionate release before. When she wrote to the prison’s warden requesting it in April 2019, she noted she and her co-defendants have always maintained their innocence in the explosion.

“We are innocent,” she wrote. “I know innocence has no part in your consideration of my compassionate release request, but I feel compelled to assert my innocence nonetheless.”

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 had been coerced by authorities. A key witness was Edwards’ daughter Becky, who has since said she was pressured to lie about overhearing her mother and the others planning a theft at the construction site.

Some of the jurors who voted to convict Edwards have acknowledged they believed in her innocence, McGraw reported. They said they found Edwards guilty because they wrongly believed letting her go would set the other defendants free.

His investigation prompted a U.S. Department of Justice 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.”

In March 2017, Bryan Sheppard, the youngest of the five convicted, 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.

Sheppard sued the Department of Justice that year seeking answers about the case. That case is still pending.

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