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Ken Middleton has a new chance at justice. The Jackson County Attorney should grant it

On a sunny winter day in late January, Cliff Middleton walked with urgency as he entered a bar near the Crossroads area of ​​Kansas City. He ordered a coffee. “Black with no sugar or cream,” he said to the bartender. He was there to meet a member of The Star’s editorial board. Cliff, a middle-aged man with graying hair, piercing green eyes and a booming voice, fought for 32 years to free his father, Ken Middleton, from a Missouri prison.

It’s a worthy cause, but one that could be in vain if the Jackson County Attorney’s Office doesn’t right what appears to be a grave injustice. Ken Middleton is serving a life sentence for the 1990 murder of his wife, Kathy Middleton. Under a new Missouri law, local prosecutors can file a motion asking a judge to release or reverse a verdict of guilty on the basis of new information or evidence that exonerates the person convicted of wrongdoing.

There is good reason to believe that Middleton did not initially receive a fair trial, and legitimate questions persist about what actually happened the day his wife died. So why not take another look at the evidence?

The attorney’s office remains convinced that Ken Middleton has received a fair jolt. No judge has ordered Baker to hear Middleton’s claims at the bench, according to officials at Baker’s office. This, despite former Jackson County court judge Edith Messina granting Middleton a new trial in 2005.

Messina is a senior adviser to Baker today. Does Baker not trust Messina’s ability to be fair and impartial?

“The Jackson County Attorney’s Office has conducted four reviews of this case over the years,” the statement read. “Every review has not supported Middleton’s claims of innocence. Our Conviction Integrity Unit would require new evidence to open a fifth review. We sympathize with the family, but unfortunately this does not amount to wrongful conviction. We would like to support a review of Mr. Middleton’s sentence, given his age, by the Governor of Missouri. We don’t have the authority to change his sentence.

“Terrible mistrial”

“It’s a mistrial,” said Cliff Middleton. He cleaned the stains off the glasses he wears. He retrieved an email from Jason Flom, a founding board member of the Innocence Project. On her “Wrongful Conviction with Jason Flom” podcast, Flom interviewed the young Middleton about his father’s legal saga. In the email Middleton showed us, Flom wrote, “Ken Middleton’s case is one of the craziest and most terrifying miscarriages of justice he has ever heard of.”

We should all share a similar concern.

Messina oversaw Ken Middleton’s original trial and granted retrial after new evidence and testimony during his two-day evidentiary hearing in 2005.

Citing jurisdictional issues, the Missouri Attorney General’s office appealed Messina’s order. A three-judge panel at the Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City agreed: His ruling was overturned on procedural grounds, according to court documents. Despite clear and compelling evidence that Middleton’s right to a fair trial has been violated, he languishes in prison while others acquitted of their crimes are set free.

Baker and other high-profile elected officials fought for the release of Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man convicted of a triple homicide he did not commit. Until Baker filed a motion to free Strickland, he spent four decades locked up. Why won’t Baker do the same for Ken Middleton, the Blue Springs man that Baker’s senior counsel, according to Messina, deserved a new trial?

Middleton has what Strickland doesn’t have: a judge’s ruling affirming his claims of ineffective counsel. Under the United States Constitution, every defendant has the right to a fair trial. Middelton did not receive one, Messina decided.

“There is no one who has done a more thorough examination of this case than Judge Messina,” said Cliff Middleton.

Unfair trial, new evidence to evaluate

Does the Jackson County Attorney’s Office have a conflict in this case? Apparently, according to a pair of lawsuits filed recently in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Middleton’s team wants Baker to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the imprisoned man’s longstanding claims of innocence. In court documents filed last fall, his attorney Kent Gipson argues persuasively why Baker should step aside and remove his office from any involvement in Middleton’s post-conviction relief efforts.

Over the nature of the work, Baker’s office is in conflict, Gipson argues in legal documents. During Middleton’s original trial in 1991, prosecutors engaged in nefarious behavior documented by the trial judge, Edith Messina, Gibson says. You ruled in court that Middleton did not receive a fair trial as guaranteed by the US Constitution.

Why was that ruling, based on new evidence then presented, never challenged in court? Had he been, Middleton would likely be a free man, the evidence suggests. Only a legal technicality—jurisdictional issues, not evidence of a crime, legal experts say—kept him behind bars.

If Baker won’t use whatever authority he has to right this gross injustice — and it’s clear he won’t support Middleton’s plea for freedom — then he should withdraw his commission from the case in the interests of fairness. What does Baker have to lose by asking a fresh pair of eyes to look into Middleton’s claims of innocence?

Last month, and without explanation, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Phillips declined to hear the motion to exclude Baker from this case, according to Gipson. Phillips previously worked under Baker in the prosecutor’s office. Last week, in a separate legal motion, Gipson argued that Phillips cannot be impartial and argued that she should withdraw from the same case, a claim the judge must consider.

At the time of his appointment to the bench in 2015, Phillips was the prosecutor’s assistant chief of prosecution for the violent crimes unit, according to biographical information available online.

“Judge Phillips … was employed as the Jackson County prosecutor during much of the post-conviction litigation conducted in Mr. Middleton’s case,” Gipson wrote in the court records.

Frozen assets, inadequate defense

Before his trial in 1991, then-assistant prosecutor Patrick Peters froze Middleton’s assets, preventing him from mounting a competent defense, his attorney says. The court declined to hear that argument. Government agents cannot restrict a defendant’s access to hard-earned money and other assets, Gipson argues in court documents. He is right, according to a ruling by the US Supreme Court.

In the case of Luis v. United States 2016, the high court held that any prior restraint on a defendant’s legitimate assets that prevents him from hiring an attorney violates the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In 1991, a Jackson County jury found Middleton guilty of first-degree murder and felony action in the shooting of his wife, Kathy, a tragic incident that evidence suggests was accidental. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 200 years. In the decades since, Middleton, 78, has maintained his innocence. But now he has exhausted all appeals. That he could die behind bars without receiving a hearing or a retrial is inconceivable.

Under a new Missouri law, Baker has an avenue to right past judicial wrongs. Why won’t he use it in this case? One misconception is one too many.

More than 17 years after Messina’s order for a new trial, Middleton remains in prison. At the very least, he deserves a hearing before a neutral judge. Attorney Baker has an ethical duty to pursue justice fully and transparently. We hope you explain in more detail why your office will not proceed to review your case.

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