Bryan Sheppard is free for the first time in more than 22 years. He was released days ago and is speaking to KCTV5 in his first sit-down interview.
Sheppard is youngest of five people convicted in a 1988 arson fire and explosion that killed six Kansas City firefighters.
Sheppard is free due to a legal technicality. A federal judge re-sentenced him because Sheppard was 17 at the time of the explosion. He’s now required to live in Kansas City as terms of his release.
“It's really strange. It's hard to find my bearings. Everything is spun around. I'm doing my best to take it one step at a time,” says Sheppard.
Sheppard has always maintained his innocence in the case and points to a lie detector test that he passed. Sheppard says he’s now struggling with the guilt that he’s free and his co-defendants remain in jail.
“They are happy that I am out but I feel guilty every day that they aren't here with me. They deserve a second chance too because they didn’t commit the crime either. Frank (Sheppard) passed a lie detector test. Richard (Brown) passed a lie detector test!” Sheppard said.
Sheppard says he and his legal team will keep pushing in this case. Sheppard’s attorney, Cyndy Short, tells KCTV5 News she now represents the other defendants, including Richard Brown. And she’s representing them for free.
“As much joy as there was for us there was tremendous heartache for the Brown family because Richard is only a few months older than Bryan,” says Short.
Short says she is convinced in the innocence of her clients.
“All five of them went to trial ... all five of them turned down opportunities to shorten, lessen or eliminate their sentence against them. And that is such a characteristic of innocence,” Short said.
Short says the trial transcripts show the case was largely built on informants who cut deals and historically that type of testimony is often unreliable. Additionally, there is no physical evidence in the case. Short points out the three defendants who were able to take lie detector tests, all passed. Darlene Edwards has not been tested but is willing to take a test as proof of innocence. Short says her opinion, that the defendants are actually innocent, is shared by the numerous defense attorneys who have represented them through the years.
“They all, all of them believe in their innocence and that's a very rare thing among a group of defense attorneys,” Short said.
More legal action expected
Short says legal plans are in motion for clemency appeals for the other defendants. A key component is the 2011 Department of Justice report into the explosion and subsequent trial.
“Our pathway to the truth is in that report and for the government to stand in the way of the truth is really a violation of their ethical duties,” said Short.
That report does not clear the defendants but does suggest that two other people may have played the role in the arson. However, that report is heavily redacted. There are entire pages blacked out, due to “privacy reasons.”
Short has made numerous legal arguments for the full report. She is now partnering with a law firm who has media specialists who will argue the report should fully released and the names revealed. They will argue that the privacy of 2 potential suspects is outweighed by rights of defendants currently in jail.
Short says the decision to release Sheppard who was 17 at the time of the explosion could be an additional component of her legal arguments to free the other defendants. The defendants were convicted of arson but Short says the original judge enhanced the sentence treating the defendants like murderers. Short says that type of sentencing is not legal under current federal law.
Reaction from firefighter families
Families of the firefighters have said publicity that legal maneuvers, in this case, are incredibly painful.
Some hung their heads in stunned silence and stared at the floor when the judge announced his decision that released Sheppard.
Cassandra McKarnin is the daughter of Robert McKarnin. She testified in court the life sentence for these families never ends.
“We know the law is in his favor as a juvenile. We were prepared for this but this is an incredible disappointment,” McKarnin said.
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