COLUMBUS (AP) — From the day of his arrest in 1994 for fatally shooting three people, Kevin Keith has proclaimed his innocence. He pointed to alibi witnesses who placed him elsewhere, an alternative suspect and a host of inconsistencies in the evidence against him.
Keith’s arguments did not stop his conviction and death sentence for killing two women and a 4-year-old girl in what prosecutors said was retaliation for his arrest in a northern Ohio drug sweep. In 2010, then-Gov. Ted Strickland commuted Keith’s sentence to life without parole, citing questions about the evidence and a “troubling” failure to investigate other suspects.
Still fighting, Keith, now 54, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to grant him a new trial based on evidence never heard by a jury. Keith’s lawyers say the personnel file of a state forensics investigator who worked on his case contains allegations she had a habit of providing police departments answers they wanted in cases.
Attorneys for Keith, who is black, also say the file shows the investigator was mentally unstable and used racial slurs against co-workers.
This evidence, attorneys argue, is among several allegations uncovered years later that a jury never heard, including:
• An alternative suspect’s statement he was paid to “cripple” the informant responsible for the drug raid just weeks before the shootings.
• Documents showing the same suspect was known during crimes to wear a mask similar to the one Keith was alleged to have worn that night.
• The location of a bullet casing used to implicate Keith may have been wrong.
“There is no way what he got in 1994 is anything close to a fair trial,” said Rachel Troutman, supervising attorney of the State Public Defender Office’s death penalty division.
Killed in the shootings were Marichell Chatman, 24; her 4-year-old daughter, Marchae; and Marichell’s 39-year-old aunt, Linda Chatman.
Richard Warren, Marichell Chatman’s boyfriend, survived his injuries and fingered Keith as the shooter. Keith’s attorneys say he was led by investigators to improperly identify Keith.
Two children survived: Linda Chatman’s niece, 6-year-old Quanita Reeves, and nephew, 4-year-old Quinton Reeves.
The prosecution says a jury already heard much of the information and came to its own conclusion, one upheld by dozens of courts over the years.
“There is overwhelming evidence of guilt in this case,” said Matthew Crall, the elected prosecutor for Crawford County, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of Columbus.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide on Thursday whether they will hear Keith’s arguments, with an announcement next week. Both sides know it is a long shot: the court takes a fraction of such petitions. Keith also has cases pending in lower courts.
At the heart of Keith’s latest arguments is the personnel file of Michele Yezzo, a now-retired forensics analyst with the state Bureau of Criminal Identification. Keith’s attorneys first learned of the file two years ago.
Yezzo’s “findings and conclusions regarding evidence may be suspect. She will stretch the truth to satisfy a department,” according to a 1989 memo in the file. Yezzo also had a reputation of giving police answers if they “stroke her,” according to an investigator’s handwritten notes elsewhere in the file.
Prosecutors say lower courts properly ruled nothing in Yezzo’s personnel file would have made a difference in the outcome. They also say Yezzo was placed on administrative leave until she met with a counselor about her interactions with colleagues, but that was unrelated to her proficiency as an analyst.
They also say Yezzo provided key evidence favoring Keith, that footprints from the scene did not match his shoes.
Strickland, a Democrat, stopped short in a recent interview of saying Keith is innocent. But there is no question he deserves a new trial based on problems with the defense, prosecution and investigation, the former governor said.
“Certainly the way I view this case now, it would have been tragic if Ohio had taken this man’s life,” Strickland said.