KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A 75-year-old Missouri inmate who insists he did not kill his wife is clinging to hope that Gov. Mike Parson will heed his petition for clemency, despite three decades of unsuccessful legal efforts to secure his freedom.
Kathy Middleton died from a gunshot wound in her Blue Springs home on Feb. 20, 1990, and her husband, Ken, was sentenced to life and 200 years for first-degree murder. Middleton, his son and investigators who have studied his case allege corruption and the incompetence of police, defense attorneys and prosecutors landed him in jail and have kept him there.
Middleton says he and his wife were arguing the day she died; Kathy had just discovered Ken had an affair, which he said ended two or three years before that day. He says she grabbed a gun that he had been planning to clean and stormed into another room to call the other woman. Middleton says he didn't follow his wife, but he soon heard a gunshot. He realized his wife was dead and frantically called 911.
Prosecutors argued Middleton pushed his wife against a wall and shot her. They said he acted strangely after the shooting, feigned illness and told different stories about what had happened. Middleton acknowledges that he didn't tell police about the affair until this year.
Middleton's supporters believe the gun went off accidentally when Kathy Middleton dropped the gun, or that she tried to grab it as it fell and accidentally pulled the trigger.
Cliff Middleton has worked relentlessly to try to prove his father's innocence, compiling a wealth of legal documents that he and other supporters say point to a laundry list of problems in the case: Blue Springs police inexplicably undressed Kathy Middleton at the scene; no gunshot residue or blood spatter was found on Ken Middleton; the original crime scene photographs didn't turn out; and police messed up an attempt to restage the scene. Medical records support Middleton's claim that he suffered from conditions that explain what investigators called his strange behavior at the home.
Perhaps most important is the incomplete testing of gunshot residue on Kathy Middleton. Her right hand was tested and showed no residue, but prosecutors did not produce test results for her left hand. Middleton's supporters say she likely would have used her left hand to grab the gun as it fell. One report was changed with whiteout to show tests were done on only one hand and appears to block out a word saying the left hand was tested. A police department employee testified that testing on both hands is standard and couldn't explain why police reported testing only one of the victim's hands in Middleton's case.
In 2004, Middleton turned down an Alford plea, in which the defendant denies guilt but acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him.
“I wasn't going to take that plea for something I didn't do,” Middleton said in a telephone interview from the Western Missouri Correctional Center.
“I didn't want people believing I killed my wife," he said.
Court records and interviews show Middleton's attorney, Bob Duncan, made no opening statement during his trial in 1991. Duncan also failed to interview or call any witnesses, did not have Middleton or his son testify, did not introduce Middleton's medical records and was unfamiliar with the prosecution's evidence. The jury deliberated for just over an hour before convicting him.
It later emerged that Duncan was involved in three capital murder cases at that time, and was under investigation for tax evasion, to which he pleaded guilty in 1992. Before his death in 1997, Duncan provided Middleton's new attorneys with affidavits acknowledging his lack of trial preparation.
A 1992 appeal hearing — granted based on Duncan's ineffective counsel — lasted less than two hours. His new attorney, Gerald Handley, also called no witnesses and didn't provide evidence to refute the prosecution.
A third attorney, Jonathan Laurens, filed an 81-page brief in 2002 outlining why Middleton deserved a new trial, citing sloppy police work, ineffective counsel and unusual actions by prosecuting attorney Pat Peters during the first two legal proceedings. They alleged Peters improperly influenced Blue Springs police, prevented witnesses from testifying at the appeal and had a conflict of interest because his father's firm was representing Kathy Middleton's sisters in a wrongful death lawsuit. Peters died in 2017.
Jennifer Brady, a spokeswoman for the Blue Springs Police Department, said recently that no one could comment on the case because so much time has passed.
Chuck Gay, of Rogers, Arkansas, a private investigator and retired police detective in Long Beach, California, was one of several expert witnesses who testified at another hearing in 2004. He says the entire case was built on sloppy police work.
“He's been in there for 30 years for something he didn't do," Gay said. “He was railroaded by incompetent police. I've studied hundreds of murders and this is the most innocent man I've ever seen.”
Robert Tressell, a forensic investigator specializing in crime scene analysis, also testified in 2004. He says his analysis indicates the shooter would have had to have been under the dining room table to shoot Kathy at the angle prosecutors suggested, which he called “preposterous."
He says he doesn't know if Middleton was guilty but “in my opinion, the truth about what happened at that house has not come out.”
The prosecutor's office in Jackson County, where Middleton was convicted, has reviewed the case three times and would do so again if it received new evidence, said Mike Mansur, a spokesman for prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.
In May 2005, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Edith Messina, who presided over the first trial, vacated Middleton's 1991 conviction. She ruled he had essentially been abandoned by his counsel and ordered a new trial. Six days later, her ruling was appealed, and in June 2006, the appeals court denied a new trial, ruling on procedural grounds and not addressing the evidence and competency of Middleton's attorneys.
Laurens tried but failed to have the case transferred to the Missouri Supreme Court, essentially ending Middleton's legal options and leaving his future in Parson's hands.
Parson's spokeswoman, Kelli Jones, said the office wouldn't comment on Middleton's request, one of more than 3,500 clemency petitions before him.
“When your life's on the line and you know what they done to you, you can't quit,” Middleton said. “All the documents show it, and that gives me courage to never give up."