close
close

Sandy Hemme is finally almost free. Who else has locked up her ineffective lawyer?

Sandy Hemme is finally almost free. Who else has locked up her ineffective lawyer?

The day after the Missouri Court of Appeals ordered the release of exonerated Missouri prisoner Sandra “Sandy” Hemme, I received an unexpected text message from private investigator Latahra Smith, formerly of Kansas City. She wanted to talk about the shoddy work of one of Hemme’s original defense attorneys, Robert “Bob” Duncan, who died in 1997.

I was raised never to speak ill of the dead, so I’ll tread carefully here. But as far as I know, at least five cases involving Duncan have been overturned by the courts. There may be more.

In three of those cases, the defendants were on death row when they were acquitted or their death sentences were overturned. In each case, Duncan was found ineffective, according to legal documents.

When it comes to wrongful convictions, Smith knows what she’s talking about. Her tireless investigative work led to the exoneration of Keith Carnes, a Kansas City man wrongly convicted of murder in a fatal shooting in 2003. Although Duncan had no ties to Carnes’ defense, Smith said she has investigated a number of his criminal cases.

“Every case Bob Duncan has ever touched has to be reviewed by the justice system,” Smith told me.

Based on what I know of Duncan’s past, her claim is correct.

Folks, this is a problem that needs to be addressed by local prosecutors and the office of Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey.

Speaking of Bailey, his unnecessary requests to keep Hemme, 64, behind bars are inhumane. In June, Livingston County Judge Ryan Horsman found Hemme innocent of a 1980 murder conviction in St. Joseph based on clear and convincing evidence. Yet Hemme remained in a Missouri prison as of Wednesday.

A few minutes after Smith’s text, Cliff Middleton of Kansas City emailed me. Duncan’s legal work was also the subject of Middleton’s correspondence.

“Sandra Hemme will be released,” Middleton wrote Tuesday night. “Chalkboard number 5 for Bob Duncan who has been found ineffective by a court.”

Middleton would know more about Duncan’s history than most. For more than three decades, he has been fighting his father, Ken Middleton, to be released from prison. The elder Middleton is a former truck driver from Blue Springs. He is serving a life sentence for the 1990 murder of his wife, Kathy Middleton.

The Middletons have long maintained that Ken did not kill his wife. In 2005, citing ineffective counsel—Duncan represented Ken at his original murder trial—former Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Edith Messina overturned Ken’s life sentence and ordered a new trial. Despite that ruling, Ken has remained in prison since his arrest 34 years ago.

Later this month, Ken will finally get the chance to plead his innocence in open court for the first time since Messina overturned his guilty plea.

I have written about the parody of justice that both Carnes and Ken Middleton faced in the Missouri justice system. Over the years, I have gotten to know both Smith and Cliff Middleton as they fought to bring their loved ones home.

I now understand why they both contacted me this week to talk about Duncan, a former prominent Kansas City attorney who ran afoul of federal law in the late 1980s and later had his law license revoked for failing to pay federal income taxes, court documents show.

Duncan not only represented Hemme in her 1985 murder trial, as court records show, but he also served as the defense attorney for former death row inmates Leamon White, Clarence Dexter and Ed “Butch” Ruescher.

Earlier this year, my colleague Melinda Henneberger wrote about Ruescher’s trials and tribulations with Duncan. In 1996, both Reescher’s conviction for first-degree murder and his death sentence were overturned because of Duncan’s ineffective defense counsel.

Hemme’s release was long overdue. She wrongfully served 43 years in prison for the murder of Patricia Jeschke, a St. Joseph woman who Hemme did not kill, according to court records. Thanks in no small part to Duncan, Hemme was granted post-conviction relief last month.

If her case and those of the others I mentioned above are not enough to warrant a thorough investigation into Duncan’s ineffective practices over the years, how can we have any confidence in Missouri’s justice system?