Federal Appeals Court Rules Kevin Keith's Challenge to 1994 Murder Conviction Can Proceed With New Evidence

click to enlarge Kevin Keith - Photo by Eric Sandy
Photo by Eric Sandy
Kevin Keith

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that Kevin Keith, who's spent the last 24 years behind bars for a triple murder in Bucyrus that he says he didn't commit, can present new evidence to a judge in contesting his conviction. (You can read the full decision, first reported locally by Cleveland.com, below.)

It is now up to Judge U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver to weigh the evidence and potential Brady violations and decide whether or not Keith, who was originally sentenced to death but granted clemency just two weeks before his date with the executioner in 2010, should be granted a new trial.

His habeas petitions have been previously denied by appeals courts, but the most recent one, which included new evidence that the state intentionally didn't respond to a subpoena that would have provided exculpatory evidence directly refuting one of the prosecution's main claims at trial and that the state withheld material concerning the disgraced professional career of Michele Yezzo, a former forensic scientist with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation whose work was crucial to the state's case at trial, led the panel to rule in favor of Keith.

The whole troublesome, long saga that led to Keith's conviction was covered in a Scene feature story late last year, but the short version: Three people were murdered and three more injured in a 1994 shooting in Bucyrus. Keith, who was familiar and known to the victims, was identified as a suspect by questionable eyewitnesses and shoddy forensic work; police posited that Keith had committed the crime as retribution for one of the victims' family members helping the police in a low-level drug case that ensnared Keith and his relatives. (The snitch, for lack of a better word, was supposed to be home at the time of the shooting but wasn't.)

An alternate suspect, Rodney Melton, a drug dealer who in the weeks before the murder confided to his girlfriend that he was paid to $15,000 to "cripple" the same snitch who was the target of the shooting, and who was tied to the crime both by other witnesses and evidence (more on that in a second), was floated at Keith's original trial and in subsequent appeals, of which there were many, but never seriously investigated by the police.

Where those previous appeals failed, this one succeeded.

Citing the new evidence, the panel ruled that two of the state's "core" aspects of the case are now very much in question.

The first deals with the man, Richard Warren, who was one of the victims and who allegedly identified Keith as the shooter. As the state's version of events go, when he awoke in the hospital he told a nurse it was Kevin Keith who put him there and that nurse called police to let them know. The defense long contended that Keith was never mentioned as a suspect by any witnesses before cops mentioned the name to them. If Warren never independently identified Keith before having any conversation or interview with the police, that would bolster their contention.

A subpoena was issued for phone records from the police department; the defense team never received a response, and Warren's hospital-room ID and the existence of the phone call entered into evidence.

But years later, thanks to a separate lawsuit, both those call logs and the original subpoena were recovered. Not only was there no such call from the hospital anywhere near the time stated, but "IGNORE FOR NOW" was written at the top of the subpoena.

Additionally, the nurse, misidentified in previous appeals and thus proving unreachable, has now been correctly identified by Keith's team and provided an affidavit saying she never made the call, or any call, because Richard Warren never said anything about Kevin Keith or any other suspect.

The appeals court this week ruled that there's sufficient reason to believe the state, in that regard, intentionally withheld evidence from Keith's team that could have impacted a jury's decision.

The second deals with Yezzo, whose "expert" conclusions about a partial license plate imprint and tire tracks at the scene formed a significant portion of the state's case.

In 2016, her 33-year career at BCI came under fire. A Huron County judge that year tossed the conviction of a man named James Parsons after his lawyers successfully argued that Yezzo's 800-page personnel file, rife with stinging and concerning comments from her superiors like, "Her finding and conclusions regarding evidence may be suspect. She will stretch the truth to satisfy a department," was withheld before trial. The same files contained allegations that she used racist language and threatened to kill a coworker. She was placed on administrative leave at least once and was actively under investigation at the time she worked on the Keith case.

The 6th District this week came to a similar conclusion  — that Keith's team, unaware of her troubling track record at the time of the original trial because BCI and the state never shared that information, was unable to properly question or impeach her work. (As it turns out, later lawyers for Keith found the partial plate and tire tracks Yezzo tied to Keith could also be tied to Melton, who passed away a few years ago.)

It's the first bit of good news for Keith, his lawyers, and his brother Charles, who has been fighting to clear Kevin's name for more than two decades, in quite some time. We'll continue to keep you updated as things happen.

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Vince Grzegorek

Vince Grzegorek has been with Scene since 2007 and editor-in-chief since 2012. He previously worked at Discount Drug Mart and Texas Roadhouse.
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