- Photo by Eric Sandy
- Kevin Keith
Charles Keith is not presently one of the 2,300 inmates at Marion Correctional Institution. He is not sitting in a prison cell, because he was not at any point convicted of murder. He has never had his life spared in an act of clemency by the governor of Ohio, and thus he has never avoided his own scheduled execution, because the state has never intended upon killing Charles Keith. After 23 years of fighting, though, it may as well have.
Charles surrounds himself each day with the life story of his brother, Kevin Keith. It's his life story, too. Kevin just happens to be the brother behind bars.
With the stirrings of a grizzled shadow across his face, Charles begins pulling dog-eared court records out of a brown accordion file. He lays them gingerly in a row, covering a large table at the Stark County Public Library in downtown Canton. He's done this many times before, because the true story of his brother's life is in these pages, not in the version told by the state of Ohio.
According to that version: On the evening of Feb. 13, 1994, a 30-year-old black man named Kevin Keith entered Apartment 1712 at the Bucyrus Estates complex on the edge of rural Bucyrus, Ohio. Inside, while a basketball game flashed on the living room television, he shot and killed two women and a girl: Marichell and Linda Chatman and 7-year-old Marchae Chatman. Three survivors — a man and two young children — also sustained serious gunshot wounds. The victims all were black, except for the man, and they were all acquaintances of Kevin; he even babysat the little ones every now and then.
He was arrested two days later during a SWAT raid at his home, though the Bucyrus Police Department has no record of any statement from Keith nor any official interview before the cuffs came out. During the trial that spring, Kevin provided multiple alibi witnesses who placed him miles away from the murder scene. (He did not testify himself, a common practice in murder trials.) What little physical evidence that was available pointed to an alternate suspect, but numerous records and details were hidden from the public in 1994. The trial came and went quickly, and the conviction sealed Kevin's fate. Within four months of the shootings, he was sentenced to death by a Crawford County jury.
"I didn't start out to prove his innocence," Charles says today. "Just show me where he's guilty, and I'll have to leave it alone," he'd ask to anyone who might be able to answer.
"So I'm looking, because he's already been found guilty. 'Let me see if I can find something,'" he says. "I cannot; I literally tore their case apart. I set out to find out how he was guilty."
Immediately after the arrest, Charles took to his brother's side. He dropped out of Kent State University that spring, leaving behind a psychology degree and taking it upon himself to represent his family and brother in the court of public opinion. When the trial started in May, Charles and his family were leading small rallies outside the county courthouse in downtown Bucyrus. He spoke with news reporters, who were also working frantically to explain this incongruous case.
The violence at Bucyrus Estates presented a gripping narrative for a small rural town with an even smaller black population. (Bucyrus is 30 miles west of Mansfield.) Stories and editorials in the local newspapers offered a glimpse into an insulated community, where Keith and his extended family grew up alongside the Chatman family — the victims — and provided fodder for neighborhood speculation.
The cold-blooded murder of women and children was even cited specifically by President Bill Clinton during a springtime visit to Ohio, where he touted his administration's Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, otherwise known as the Crime Bill. By then, of course, people already knew the name Kevin Keith. Clinton was just casting it in bold type.
More than two decades have passed since the shootings. Kevin has maintained his innocence from the start.
These days, he spends his time working on faith-based programming at Marion Correctional, just a quick trip down the road from Bucyrus. He carries himself confidently, wearing a wiry cut of facial hair across a thick jaw line. In conversation he's cheery, if only to maintain his leadership role in the general population's tilt toward the Lord and in the state prison's WordMasters program, which he created. "I woke up one day, and I said I got a choice: I can be bitter, okay? Or I can have limited frustration. I pretty much choose limited frustration," he tells Scene during a recent visit to Marion.
For more than a decade, Kevin sweated out the wait on Death Row while his appellate counsel exhausted every avenue back into the courts. Back then, like now, judges weren't budging. In 2007, he fired his attorneys amicably and welcomed the Ohio Public Defender's Office into his case.
Almost immediately, Keith's new lead attorney, Rachel Troutman, began discovering long-hidden police records and investigative documents that shed incredible new light on the Bucyrus murders. She found a state report that laid out a simultaneous crime spree in the spring of 1994, a pharmacy burglary ring operating out of Crawford County that was led by a convicted murderer who admitted to a role in the Chatman murders.
The Ohio Public Defenders Office has pushed a different version of the story: The conviction was marred by dubious eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial tunnel vision and the faulty work of a disgraced former forensic scientist. Those attorneys have been filing these claims in court for years now, asserting new evidence and joining the solo mission that Charles Keith started way back in 1994.
"It's not a case we can give up on," Troutman says. "We're convinced that he's innocent, so there will be some way, somehow, that we end up demonstrating that to the outside world. It's also the kind of case where no matter where you dig you find something. It's remarkable. Every time we try, there's something new to be found that demonstrates that it was a sham all along, the conviction."
Armed with this new material, Troutman and her team have worked their way back up the judicial ladder in Ohio. They secured a commutation from Gov. Ted Strickland in 2010 that canceled Keith's date with the executioner and granted him a sentence of life in prison. ("Many legitimate questions have been raised regarding the evidence in support of the conviction and the investigation which led to it," Strickland said at the time.) They continue to seek a new trial and a new opportunity to present the truth lost in Bucyrus so many years ago, because an innocent man has been behind bars ever since.
The night of Feb. 13, 1994, holds many mysteries, but there's one point upon which the state and the defense agree: A man named Rudel Chatman was the intended target, and he wasn't at home that night.
Rudel was a confidential informant for the Galion Police Department, based just a few miles east of Bucyrus. Dealers referred to him as a snitch, and there was plenty of dealing going around Crawford County in the early 1990s. Kevin Keith was a part of it. "I'll be the first to tell you," he says now, "I was involved in drug activity. I did sell drugs — and did drugs."
Growing up, Charles and Kevin and their family spent time all over Crawford County: in Crestline, where they grew up; in Galion; in Bucyrus. They were well acquainted with other black families in the area: the Chatmans, the Meltons, the Reeves. There were pick-up games and picnics throughout their youth; Kevin went on to play defensive tackle at McKinley High School. His team won a state title in 1981. As he got older, he took to small-time drug dealing. Other opportunities were limited.
- Photo by Eric Sandy
- Charles Keith
Charles, a student at the old Timken High, was at the bottom of his class and skipping the sort of civics lessons that he'd eventually need as he studied his brother's case. "It didn't seem to matter at the time," he says. "Now I see how important your education is. It's the only thing that America will give you for free."
Charles scans the court documents and newspaper clippings that make up his brother's story. This is his education, he likes to say. He spent time in libraries and took up work at a halfway house in the '90s. He called attorneys and judges for hypothetical perspectives on criminal law. He studied the formats of court dockets, and he watched hours of criminal drama on television. Eventually, he had to kick the TV shows and hunker down.
"I used to watch all kinds of things, just so I could learn. Once I got all my information, I stopped watching them, because now it's going to take me to a point of confusion," Charles says. "See? Every night, I go through these documents again to keep it all fresh in my mind. I'm actually back in 1994. I'm still there."
A January 1994 Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum headline lays the foundation for Kevin's murder conviction: "Area drug bust hauls in nine." It's the motive alleged by the prosecution; Kevin was arrested for selling 2.6 grams of crack cocaine, and Rudel Chatman was the informant involved in the Jan. 21 bust. The theory was that three weeks later the shooter was seeking revenge on Rudel for snitching.
But right after the drug bust, another local man named Rodney Melton told his girlfriend that he had been paid $15,000 to "cripple" Rudel, who in addition to snitching on dime-bag dealers had also been working as an informant against Melton and the ongoing pharmacy burglary ring. The detectives working that case, however, never passed that information along to the Bucyrus Police Department. The prosecution was never told about the $15,000 hit, and that fact lay hidden for more than a decade.
In fact, a lot of information was hidden for a long time. In April 1994, for example, right before the murders, the Crawford County prosecutor quietly filed an indictment against Rodney Melton. Among the three felony charges leveled against him was the August 1993 sale of morphine. The police informant working against Rodney? It was Rudel Chatman, according to the state's own documentation. That indictment was dismissed more than a year later as the pharmacy case went to trial in Franklin County, and it was never publicly cited again. Rudel and Rodney, like Rudel and Kevin, were linked.
For one reason or another, though, Rudel Chatman wasn't at home on Feb. 13, 1994. His sister Marichell, however, was at the apartment with her daughter, Marchae, and her live-in boyfriend, Richard Warren. They were watching Marichell's young cousins, Quentin and Quanita Reeves, along with her aunt, Linda Chatman. According to Warren's testimony, a basketball game was playing on TV in the living room.
Outside, snow banks were piled high along the trim row of two-story apartment buildings.
Witnesses told varying stories over the years, but the first descriptions of the scene involve a "large black man" seen at the apartment complex.
According to the state of Ohio, Linda Chatman walked outside to meet the man. Richard asked Marichell who the man was, and she replied that "it was Kevin who had been involved in a large drug bust," the state insists. When Linda and the man, who was wearing a mask, walked back inside, he and Richard talked about the basketball game. The man told Richard not to use his name. After drinking two glasses of water through the cloth covering his mouth, the man ordered everyone in the room to lie down. As the state goes on in its explanation: "When Marichell expressed concerns about harm coming to the children who were present, Kevin told Marichell that 'you should have thought about this before your brother [Rudel] started ratting on people.' Marichell was then shot in the head. The gunman then turned to shoot the others."
Those details come from an interview with Richard Warren at Grant Medical Center several days after the shootings. It remains unclear where the name "Kevin Keith" originated, but the interview features police officers using that name repeatedly while asking Warren to reiterate his description of events. Prior to the interview, Warren had been unable to recall the name of the shooter.
Nonetheless, the description of a large black man underpinned the criminal case. And for a case that produced almost zero physical evidence, it was a credible lead that brought police to a large black man named Kevin Keith, who had been busted for small-time crack dealing three weeks prior, thanks to Rudel Chatman. (The large black man seen at Bucyrus Estates was neither Kevin Keith nor Rodney Melton, at any rate, but rather Kevin's half-brother, Karie Walker, who had just moved into the neighborhood after a stint in prison.)
And so Charles looked for years, trying to establish some meaningful connection between his brother and the murders. He says that there's no way "a few small rocks" could establish a motive for murder. But a multi-month investigation into a sprawling pharmacy ring? He's insisted to anyone who will listen that there's reason to look elsewhere in this case, and many defense attorneys have agreed.
From the summer of 1993 through the spring of 1994, an organized group of small-town criminals was routinely breaking into pharmacies around central Ohio and stealing massive amounts of liquid morphine, Dilaudid, Percocet, Vicodin and other drugs. The men involved in the theft ring were heavy drug users themselves and kept their social circle well supplied. A few of them also trafficked the drugs more broadly, flooding the regional market with clean product. It was one of the broadest pharmaceutical trafficking rings in state history, long predating Ohio's current and far-reaching opiate addiction crisis.
In Galion, Ohio, in Crawford County, police detectives Jerry Hickman and David Dayne were on the case early. With the help of frequent confidential informant Rudel Chatman, they executed controlled purchases of morphine and benzphetamine from Rodney Melton — a leader in the pharmacy theft ring. Court documents confirm the purchase of morphine as early as Aug. 31, 1993, offering a defined Point A in the investigation. The pharmacy burglaries continued unabated for months, however. Hickman and Dayne were watching Melton and the others through the winter, but nothing came of their investigative work. A three-count indictment against Melton was filed in April 1994 in Crawford County but was dismissed without any action more than a year later.
- Image courtesy of Google Maps
- Crawford County includes Bucyrus, Galion and Crestline along State Rt. 30
In January, meanwhile, the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy formed a task force to investigate what was becoming an apparent trend in break-ins and break-in attempts. (The State Board of Pharmacy is a law enforcement agency that tracks pharmaceutical drug crimes.) Agent Bill Padgett headed up the task force and compiled the final report.
In regard to the investigation into the Bucyrus murders, Padgett's document would lay dormant in the State Board's offices until 2007.The final report was not available to the public at the time of Kevin's trial, as the pharmacy investigation was ongoing. It's a comprehensive accounting of what happened in Crawford County in early 1994. It reads like the key to a map. Whereas the Jan. 21 drug bust connected Kevin Keith to Rudel Chatman on a measly 2.6-gram crack purchase, the Padgett report connects Rodney Melton to Rudel Chatman ultimately on a sprawling felony indictment: RICO charges, theft, trafficking.
"[Padgett] was involved with the investigation of the Melton brothers and the pharmacy burglaries," Rachel Troutman, the OPD attorney, says. "But he has no bone to pick with Kevin. He's got no reason for any sort of bias against Kevin. Because the investigation of the Melton brothers had begun before the murders that Kevin got convicted of — and it ended afterward — we were hoping that he would have some sort of timeline." A 2007 records request yielded all of the following information, which neatly frames the Bucyrus Estates murders and is vital context for understanding Kevin's conviction.
A tip from a botched break-in — a license plate provided by a witness to the Muskingham County Sheriff's Department, one of the first agencies signed onto the state's task force — provided a lead. The license plate was registered to a Russell Gardner in Galion, Ohio, where Hickman and Dayne had been watching the trafficking ring for months. Gardner was one of the seven men responsible for "over 200 burglaries" at that point, along with Rodney and his brother, Bruce Melton, according to the Crawford County Sheriff's Department.
With the Board of Pharmacy task force getting on the phone and asking for an investigative leg up on this case, Hickman and Dayne suddenly became the drivers of the state's investigation, even though they had already investigated the case for months without nabbing a single arrest. In fact, throughout Padgett's final report, it is Hickman whose name appears more than anyone else involved as law enforcement, beginning on Jan. 18, just one week into the task force's work. He leads Padgett's pharmacy investigation.
Based on Padgett's report and documents uncovered in the eventual criminal prosecution, Hickman and Dayne bailed on Rudel Chatman immediately and brought a new confidential informant into their investigation just days after the formation of the task force. Were it not for the Ohio Public Defender's Office, Rudel Chatman's connection to the Rodney Melton case would have been lost forever. The 1994 indictment (and the state's confirmation, years later) provides an uncanny and uninvestigated link between the Bucyrus Estates target and the alternate suspect.
Hickman and Dayne interviewed a woman named Lynn McKee on Jan. 14, 1994. She explained that she had been driving the Melton brothers to their pharmacy break-ins for most of the past year, and that she herself was a drug user who ran with the guys and purchased opiates from them. While she never received any criminal charges, she admits in that Jan. 14 interview that she'd been involved in multiple pharmacy break-ins as the getaway driver.
According to the State Board's documents, though, Hickman described McKee not as a new asset but as a long-running informant who "could be in a position to drive for the Meltons when they commit pharmacy burglaries." He immediately began relaying to the task force what the Meltons were telling McKee about upcoming burglaries.
But McKee hadn't been the CI prior to Jan. 14, and the interview underscores that fact. (The task force was not given a copy of that Galion Police Department interview transcript, and so this context was never included in the pharmacy investigation.) Hickman and Dayne peppered McKee with questions that read as odd and unnecessary if she were the CI the whole time, as they conveyed to the task force.
Hickman asks: "During our conversations indicated that you have some knowledge of some individuals that were originally from Crestline Ohio by the last name of Melton is that correct (sic)"
McKee responds: "Yes"
"What Meltons do you know (sic)"
"Rodney Melton, Bruce Melton, Maurice Melton and Donny Melton"
And, later: "If there was a boss in this who would be concidered (sic) the boss (sic)"
On Jan. 20, Hickman tells the State Board task force that the Meltons "have spread the word that anybody that snitches on them would be killed."
Hickman continues to provide information to the task force, details about where the Melton brothers live and how they go about their burglaries. During that Jan. 20 meeting, Padgett writes, "This meeting was a total exchange of information in regards to intelligence information obtained by the various departments in regards to the Meltons and their associates. Galion Police Department had informants deep inside the inner circle of the Melton burglary ring and is in the situation that a CI could be in a position to drive for the Meltons when they commit pharmacy burglaries."
Hickman never tells the task force that he'd already been using Rudel Chatman to investigate the Melton brothers, to purchase liquid morphine and to ultimately indict Rodney Melton.
On Jan. 31, Hickman was told: "[Rodney Melton] stated that he had been paid $15,000 to cripple 'the man' who was responsible for the raids in Crestline, Ohio, last week" — the man being informant Rudel Chatman and the raids being the Jan. 21 drug busts that roped in Kevin Keith. Hickman provided this information to the State Board, though it never came up in the subsequent murder investigation that was looming on the horizon. (Attempts to reach Hickman via publicly available address and phone number were unsuccessful.)
On Feb. 11, Hickman and Dayne left town to meet with an assistant prosecutor in Franklin County, where the pharmacy burglaries would eventually be prosecuted. Two days later, life in Bucyrus changed forever.
Kevin Keith was arrested for the Feb. 13 murders on Feb. 15. Galion detective Jerry Hickman joined members of the Bucyrus and Crestline police departments and the Mansfied SWAT team in raiding Kevin's home.
In his eventual defense, Kevin would insist that he was with two girlfriends on the night of the Bucyrus murders: He began the evening, according to his attorneys, around 6 p.m. at the home of his girlfriend, Melanie Davison, in Mansfield. They left her home in a blue car that belonged to another girlfriend of Kevin's at about 8:45 p.m., as neighbors testified. (It would have been at this time that the shootings were occurring some 30 miles away in Bucyrus.)
As 9 p.m. neared, Kevin and the second girlfriend arrived in Crestline at the home of his aunt, Gracie Keith. Kevin went inside to talk to his uncle, Roy Price, and to borrow a quick five dollars. They left Gracie's place after 10 minutes, arriving back at Melanie's at 9:25 p.m. "The sheer distance involved makes it impossible for Keith to have been the shooter," Kevin's appellate attorneys wrote. "From Gracie Keith's house, in Crestline, it is 19 miles to the apartment, and it would have taken approximately 25 minutes to make that drive. And Mansfield and Bucyrus are approximately 30 miles apart. Keith was accounted for before, during, and after the shootings that took place at 8:45 p.m."
Kevin did not enter a plea at his arraignment. Bond was set at $1 million. As he left the courtroom, he told reporters, "I didn't do it."
Bucyrus police chief Joseph Beran held a press conference on Feb. 16, explaining that a suspect had been arrested. "A lot of it will depend on the results we get back from BCI. ... I don't want to say that we've made an arrest and now we're going to make the case, but, I mean, we still are very interested in putting a lot of this evidence together. ... What we have is some evidence that we have collected that we hope we will be able to link him to the crimes."
In the immediate aftermath of the murders, cops set their sights on the specter of a large black man. At least six witnesses used that phrase during interviews with police on the night of Feb. 13, 1994. No one could say for sure who that large black man could have been, though. "At first, the connection was logical," as Kevin's attorneys admitted in court filings. But things spiraled out of control very fast.
It was later determined that the large black man witnesses had seen was Karie Walker, half-brother of Kevin Keith and a neighbor who had just moved into Bucyrus Estates. He was seen on the property that night by multiple people. During the trial, Walker would testify that he had used a nearby pay phone twice that night. He would also be ordered to stand next to Kevin Keith in the courtroom, and a May 19 Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum front page photo depicts two men who could very well be twins.
And so the "large black man" description stuck, and police moved in on neighbor Nancy Smathers, who provided a spotty narrative of what she saw that night. She lived across the street and laid out the immediate aftermath of the shootings in fairly thorough detail: After hearing "numerous shots," she watched the apparent shooter run from the Chatman residence. The man got into a car and sped across icy asphalt into a snowbank. Smathers said she watched the driver rock the vehicle back and forth — "cussing from inside" the car — and then speed out of the icy neighborhood. She described the vehicle as "light, crème color."
At trial, the state used a photo of a car owned by Kevin's girlfriend — colored green or gray, according to their description — as evidence. The Crawford County prosecution never accounted for the difference in color, and Nancy Smathers was never given a chance to compare that car with Rodney Melton's car, a light yellow '78 Impala.
In police reports, the name "Kevin Keith" first comes up at the crime scene, where multiple police officers say the name, according to reports. Hickman and Dayne were at the scene that night, and multiple officers bandied about a possible connection to the Jan. 21 drug bust, in which Rudel Chatman was a police informant. The image of a large black man blended into the apparent motive, and police moved forward. The arrest came swiftly, and Bucyrus police captain Mike Corwin would later acknowledge in court that Rodney Melton was never a suspect.
Once Kevin Keith's name and face flashed across the nightly news after his arrest, Smathers called Corwin and said that she was now "90-percent sure" that Kevin was the man she saw in the neighborhood that night.
Smathers did go on to testify in court that she saw Kevin that night at Bucyrus Estates. She hadn't wanted to appear on the stand, but detectives convinced her in the days leading up to the trial during an apparently tense conversation while she broke down crying, according to police reports. (Smathers has since died.)
- Photo by Eric Sandy
But despite the name Kevin Keith making the rounds among police officers, it wasn't sticking when it came time to connect with witnesses. One of the most pivotal statements, which was left out of the trial, came from gunshot victim Quanita Reeves, the 7-year-old girl who was life-flighted to Columbus Children's Hospital with her little brother while cops took statements from Smathers back at Bucyrus Estates.
The young girl woke up after a night of intensive care, and she told a nurse, "It's my fault." The nurse pressed her (and recorded the conversation in a Parent Communication Sheet), and Quanita responded "that it was her fault that she was in the hospital because her mother was sad."
After telling Quanita that it wasn't her fault at all, the nurse asked, "Whose fault is it that you're in the hospital?"
"Who is Bruce?" the nurse asked.
"Daddy's friend," meaning Bruce Melton, friend of Demetrius Reeves, both co-conspirators in the pharmacy burglary case with Rodney.
"What did Bruce do?"
"Bruce shot me," Quanita said. "He's bad. Is Bruce here?"
"Does he have his gun?"
"No. He isn't here, and he can't hurt you."
"I don't want to talk about it anymore."
And she didn't. By the time Kevin Keith's 2010 clemency hearing arrived, though, Quanita Reeves wrote in a letter to Strickland that, "Whatever happens with this case I still have no doubt in my mind that Kevin Keith done this and I ask that you deny clemency for him."
The other primary eyewitness in the case was Richard Warren, the surviving adult.
Warren was shot in the jaw and back before he took off running into the neighborhood. He was shot again in his buttocks as he dashed across a field to a nearby restaurant. There, he told four people, including a police officer, that he did not know who shot him.
- Photo by Eric Sandy
- The Crawford County Courthouse in downtown Bucyrus
As far as Warren's role in the prosecution, the state insisted that an alleged 5 a.m. phone call to police from nurse John Foor at the hospital is where the name Kevin Keith first appeared. According to the state's case, Foor called the police the morning after the murders and reported that Warren, his patient, had said the name "Kevin Keith." It's a claim that has been refuted multiple times over the years, but it remains a lynchpin in the prosecution's case. (On Feb. 14 at 1 p.m., a security guard at Grant Medical Center confirmed that "the perpetrator, who's (sic) name is still unknown, is still at large." That same afternoon, a social services worker writes that the assailant remains "unknown." The name "Kevin Keith" appears nowhere in Grant Medical Center documents.)
Nonetheless, the 5 a.m. phone call was canon for years.
About a year ago, Rachel Troutman discovered a subpoena delivered to the Bucyrus police chief on May 12, 1994, right around the start of the trial. According to the document, Judge Nelford Kimerline ordered the chief to "bring with you all records, including radio dispatch logs, of all call-ins from February 12, 1994, to the present time." On the document, handwritten in ink, is the phrase "IGNORE FOR NOW." A second subpoena was issued on the same day, seeking "all logs or other documents evidencing informative calls regarding domestic situations the Chapman (sic) family has been involved with for the last six months, including but not limited to those reported to the local newspaper." Again, handwritten: "IGNORE."
It's unclear who wrote those words, but in the end no call logs appeared in court. The 5 a.m. phone call was to be taken at the word of the prosecutor.
In 2009, after multiple attorneys had tried to find the truth behind the John Foor call, an unrelated lawsuit was filed against the Bucyrus Police Department and the city. Edwin Davila's lawsuit alleged that the city had destroyed public records, including 11,272 separate records and 31 reel-to-reel tapes. A court exhibit of call logs issued by the city happened to include the night of Feb. 13 and 14, 1994, almost unbelievably.
There is no 5 a.m. phone call on the morning of Feb. 14, and there is no call in the vicinity of 5 a.m. that includes terms like "nurse" or "Grant Medical Center" or "hospital" or "murders." Calls placed the night before, at 9:09 p.m. and 9:14 p.m., include "BUCYRUS ESTATES-GUNSHOTS" and "5 PEOPLE DOWN WITH GUNSHOT WOUNDS AT 1712 A BUCYRUS ESTATES," respectively.
Because Kevin's attorneys can't seem to get back into a courtroom to argue this fact, there has never been a public accounting of the phone log question and the subpoenas. In a response to a public records request in 2007, then-Capt. John Beal wrote, "Regarding the Station's daily phone log for 02/14/07 (sic): No such daily phone log existed at that time so I cannot supply you with that documentation. ... The recorded phone call from Nurse Foor was not copied for the prosecution or the defense at that time. The incoming/outgoing phone call recording system for the Bucyrus Police Department has undergone changes since 1994. The changes made the playback of recording mediums obsolete so the audiotapes were not retained by this Police Department. The Bucyrus Police Department does not have the recording tapes from 02/14/94."
Charles, however, years later found the actual notes written by Warren's nurses. Deep in the rabbit hole of the Bucyrus Police Department's archives, he found five sheets of paper with Warren's handwriting on them (confirmed by Foor's own testimony). The handwriting of at least two other people is also clearly seen on the paper. The name "Kevin" and "Damon" are written in handwriting that is distinctly not the jagged script of Warren's hand.
On the first sheet, Warren's handwriting reads: "When can I breath (sic) on my own," and separate handwriting above that, in all capital letters, reads: "KEVIN —" and "DAMON — FRIEND." It's unclear who else had written on those pieces of paper.
Kevin's trial attorney tried to suppress Warren's and Foor's interviews, but the judge allowed them to be used. Warren is an important pillar in the prosecution — the lone surviving adult — and one whose input Troutman and dozens of memory experts have attacked in subsequent years. Even this year, in the Ohio Supreme Court, 17 "memory and eyewitness identification experts" filed a lengthy amicus brief that breaks down the inherent problems with memory encoding, maintenance and retrieval in victims of violence.
"Once the situation escalated," the experts write, "Warren's stress level increased substantially at exactly the time that Warren was giving his full attention to the culprit. ... [H]eightened stress adversely affects memory. There was a gun involved, which naturally becomes the focus of attention and a priority perceptually. Warren provided a very detailed description of the gun, which indicated that his attention was on the gun, not the culprit, during the crime. Again, due to our limited cognitive capacity, attention directed at the gun is attention NOT directed at encoding the culprit."
And later in the brief: "Warren subsequently reported being unable to recall whether he mentioned the name to the police or they mentioned it to him."
But even though the Warren interview was used, no one in the courtroom seemed confident in the information. "Nowhere in there does Richard Warren name his shooter as Kevin," Kevin's trial attorney, James Banks, said at the time.
"Indeed, he didn't even say with certainty it was Keith," prosecutor Russell Wiseman said. "From that point on, identification was made in other ways."
Which brings us to Michele Yezzo
In April 2016, a series of questions was leveled against Michele Yezzo, a former forensic scientist at the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation. She worked in the office for 33 years, touching an untold number of criminal cases. In 1994, she presented via deposition an analysis of evidence in Kevin Keith's case. Her work powered the engine of the prosecution.
But her track record was cast into shadow when, in 2016, a Huron County judge threw out the 1993 murder conviction of a man named James Parsons. Judge Thomas Pokorny wrote that prosecutors had hidden evidence during the trial that years of sloppy investigative work by a state forensic scientist were covered up. Because Yezzo's time at the Bureau of Criminal Investigation was so thoroughly marred by doubt and personal controversy, Pokorny wrote, Parsons' conviction was itself questionable.
The Parsons exoneration brought out a multitude of damning details about Yezzo's behavior at the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. Her personnel file spans more than 800 pages.
In various instances across that time frame, Yezzo threatened to kill her coworkers; she threatened to kill herself; she acted in a "rude and aggravating," "abusive and assaultive" manner to colleagues; and, most critically, she demonstrated an erratic and unpredictable pattern that ran afoul of professional standards. In 1989, for example, an assistant BCI superintendent sets a grim tone for Yezzo's track record: "Michele's perceived problem affects her overall performance. Her finding and conclusions regarding evidence may be suspect. She will stretch the truth to satisfy a department. ... Basically, the union has placed us on notice that they consider management ineffective and unconcerned in controlling Michele."
More than routine research, in fact, Yezzo played a pivotal role in Kevin Keith's murder conviction. When an appeals court ruled earlier this year that "the evidence against Keith was simply overwhelming," the panel of judges was referring almost singularly to Yezzo's involvement in the case; there just wasn't much else presented at the trial. Aside from Nancy Smathers, Richard Warren and the alleged 5 a.m. phone call, the prosecution rested on Yezzo's report on the tire treads of the getaway car and a license plate imprint in the snow.
Kevin Keith's latest appeals were filed with the Ohio Supreme Court on Aug. 10, 2017. He's been up against that court before, but this time he and his attorneys were equipped with Yezzo's personnel file. Had it not been for the Parsons ruling last year, Yezzo's work would remain unexamined.
In a motion arguing in favor of Ohio Supreme Court jurisdiction, Keith's team writes: "The employment-personnel file of G. Michele Yezzo ... demonstrates that her superiors and colleagues knew that she had a 'reputation of giving' answers the State wanted, and that she would 'stretch the truth' when her answers did not satisfy the State. The amount of damage that was done by this one corrupt forensic analyst is yet to be determined, and this Court will undoubtedly be faced with the fallout from the defense bar's recent discovery of Yezzo's personnel file."
The Ohio Supreme Court motion urges a referendum-like hearing on the Yezzo matter by way of Keith's case. "In order to streamline the affected cases, to present the lower courts with some guidance, and to act in the interests of justice, this Court should accept jurisdiction of this appeal," the motion argues.
Despite the Parsons ruling, no court has yet ruled on how Yezzo's work might have affected untold hundreds of convictions in the state of Ohio. In Kevin Keith's case, her interactions with the Bucyrus Police Department paint a grim picture.
During the investigation and the subsequent trial, Yezzo's role dealt with the getaway car outside the Bucyrus Estates apartment on the night of the murders. Sight unseen, she linked Keith's girlfriend's grandfather's car with the crime scene, citing tire treads and a license plate imprint on a snow bank.
The license plate imprint, however, was only partial; the impression showed the numbers "043." It was later determined that there was no way of knowing where in the six-digit license plate the numbers might have been oriented: at the beginning of the plate or at the end.
On the day after the murders, a database search for "043" yielded "043LIJ," a license plate attached to a car driven by Rodney Melton. But they also brought back "MVR043," a license plate attached to a car owned by Kevin's girlfriend's grandfather. Kevin's girlfriend, Melanie Davison, often drove that car, owned by Alton Davison. Yezzo insisted that the plate imprint had to have come from Davison's car, based on the spacing between the digits. Still, no physical evidence (like clothing fibers) or forensic evidence (like blood) tied the car to Kevin; the police investigation nonetheless narrowed on Davison's 1982 Oldsmobile Omega as the getaway car and on Kevin as the driver, based solely on the account of the neighbor, Nancy Smathers, and Yezzo's BCI work.
Smathers, indeed the one eyewitness to see the getaway car at all, was never shown a photograph of Davison's car to see if it was the car she saw that night. And while Davison's car was shown in court, Rodney Melton's '78 Impala was not.
"They kept saying that was a key part of evidence," Kevin tells Scene. "Matter of fact, they said that's what led them to me. The car. Now that you know that ain't the car — now all of a sudden it didn't matter. Things like that right there, that's when your faith really gotta come into play. That's where my faith really comes into play at, right there."
During the trial, though, none of that BCI forensic material was challenged. Kevin's defense attorney, James Banks, failed to counter the Yezzo deposition with any sort of independent expert.
In 2010, and at the behest of Kevin's OPD defense, William Bodziak, a retired FBI special agent, put together a report that dismantled the science behind Yezzo's work. Long before those personnel file details leaked into the court of public opinion, Bodziak had pointed out that Yezzo's findings were slim and unprofessional.
Of the tire tread: "Yezzo chose to simply make a visual evaluation and opine the design was similar [to the tires on Kevin's girlfriend's grandfather's car]. The forensic use of the word 'similar' has no further meaning that it would for a layman in that it can only attest to a visual likeness of sorts ..."
Bodziak reported that it's impossible to say whether the same car left both the tire tread imprint and the license plate imprint in the snow.
In a July 2016 affidavit, Lee Fisher, the attorney general of Ohio in 1994 (a position that oversees the BCI), stated that Yezzo's personnel file was "very troubling" and "concerning due to the fact that the opinions of BCI's forensics analysts are relied upon by law enforcement, judges and juries. The character of an analyst is important."
Fisher went on: "Ms. Yezzo's opinions were likely very wrong and ... the prejudice in [Kevin Keith's] case is very significant." The former attorney general declared that he was "deeply concerned that Ms. Yezzo's conclusions and testimony led to a miscarriage of justice in Mr. Keith's case."
None of those details — Yezzo, the car, the license plate, the Bodziak report, Warren's interview, the $15,000 deal to kill Rudel Chatman, the pharmacy burglary connection — would have come to light had it not been for the Ohio Public Defender's Office. A stroke of serendipity brought those attorneys to Kevin's side.
Melinda Dawson was working with the Innocence Project on her ex-husband Clarence Elkins' wrongful conviction case in the early 2000s when she introduced Charles Keith to attorney Rachel Troutman.
"That mere introduction, the window opened," Charles says. "I talked to [Dawson] every single day, you know? That was just a bond that we had. We used to sit at Burger King and cry over french fries. We're both going nuts. And I said, 'We can't go crazy, because the day is going to come when we're talking to people, we're going to be on TV. People are going to be looking at us, and you gotta know what you're talking about. Just crying is not going to get it." (Elkins was exonerated in 2005 after the unreliable eyewitness testimony of the 6-year-old victim was exposed, and another suspect was revealed through DNA evidence.)
- Photo courtesy of Bucycrus Police Department
- Kevin Keith’s girlfriend’s grandfather’s car—the alleged getaway car.
By 2007, though, Keith had exhausted all of his appeal options. The only move left was to seek clemency. Troutman says that Charles greeted her with boxes of paperwork, including the lengthy trial transcript that laid out a unfinished tale. What he was saying, though, was almost unbelievable. It took some hard reading to bring the attorneys around to the depth of this case.
"When I read his transcript, it reads like a surprise novel," Troutman says. "I was shocked that he would get conviction, except I knew obviously he was on Death Row. It's not my first case, so I didn't necessarily believe he was innocent until I did my research and began my investigation. We started to uncover a whole bunch of stuff."
The first document acquired was that State Board of Pharmacy report, which outlined the pharmacy burglaries and revealed the other details left out of Kevin's prosecution. In that document, Troutman and other attorneys learned that Melton had been paid $15,000 to "cripple" Rudel Chatman, that he wore a mask while he committed his crimes (to hide a gap in his front teeth), that his car was light yellow- or cream-colored and that his license plate included the "043" sequence.
"It was like we just hit paydirt," Troutman says. "It was like, 'Oh, my god, I think this guy is telling the truth.' The more we investigated, the more we realized that what he was saying was true. When somebody's first telling you all this kind of stuff about a case, it's really hard to swallow. And then you look into it and you see for yourself, and it's just like, 'Oh, my god.'"
From there, Charles' vision of a conviction gone wrong was concretized in evidence. When it came time for Troutman to argue for clemency, conjecture had given way to confidence.
At a press conference in August 2010, Troutman laid out the simple case for Kevin, an argument that the state should not execute him. "Mr. Keith is an innocent man," Troutman said. "He is scheduled to be executed on Sept. 15, 2010, for a crime he did not commit. Tomorrow, we will appear before the Ohio Parole Board and urge the board to recommend that Gov. Strickland grant him clemency. Innocent people can get executed, unless people of good conscience do something to stop it."
As that execution date loomed, dozens of former judges and prosecutions joined Innocence Projects and other criminal law organizations around the country in supporting Kevin's defense. The Ohio Innocence Project, which rarely sticks its nose into cases that don't involve DNA evidence, filed numerous amicus briefs and letters that outlined a strong concern for the conviction at hand. "Mr. Keith was convicted and sentenced to death based on eyewitness testimony that has shown to be faulty and with no forensic evidence linking him to the crime," the OIP attorneys wrote.
Richard Warren's testimony, cemented by police lineup identification, would not have been permissible in 2010 (or the present day). Earlier that year, the statehouse approved Senate Bill 77, which banned suggestive photo lineups and prohibited any officer who is aware of a suspect's identity from conducting the ID session. (Photo lineups now must be conducted one at a time, rather than an officer showing six photos to a witness at one time. Charles suggests that his brother's conviction is a direct antecedent to that law.)
As far as Nancy Smathers' identification, she had admitted that she could only point to Kevin's face after having seen him on TV — at which point he had already been publicly identified as a suspect. "This type of eyewitness identification is notoriously unreliable," the OIP wrote.
With questions about the two witnesses, and the reveal of the fabricated 5 a.m. phone call, Gov. Ted Strickland was staring down what could only be called a highly questionable execution. "Many legitimate questions have been raised regarding the evidence in support of the conviction and the investigation which led to it," Strickland said in commuting Kevin's sentence in 2010.
"I can't thank the governor for giving me life in prison," Kevin told The Columbus Dispatch in 2010. "When I found out his decision, it felt like the poison was going through me right then. But the governor gave me some hope by leaving the door open in my case."
And, like the OIP noted, that door was left open not through DNA evidence — there wasn't a shred, after all — but at least in part due to something called Brady material. Brady v. Maryland, a landmark 1963 Supreme Court case, held that the prosecution must turn over any evidence that could exculpate the defendant. It's a tenet of due process. Because "actual innocence" is not a valid claim that can be filed in anticipation of post-conviction relief in the state of Ohio, attorneys like Troutman have to find other avenues to get back into court.
Brady material falls under the broad umbrella of information that is related to the prosecution— the work of police and state crime labs, for instance. In this case, that would of course include the claim that the alternate suspect had been paid $15,000 to carry out a hit on a man expected to be at the Bucyrus Estates crime scene. The Galion detectives involved in the pharmacy burglary ring did not mention that during the trial and, in the spring of 1994, had only an apparent tangential connection to the murders.
Yet it remains the burden of the prosecution to reveal such Brady material.
Six years later, a man named James Parsons would walk out of prison, and the integrity of former state forensic scientist Michele Yezzo would cast doubt across the rest of the evidence against Kevin. But where Parsons went free, Kevin remains behind bars.
Kevin Keith is looking for a new trial, an opportunity to lay out all that has been discovered since the rushed hearings in 1994. He's been at it for years, and he's now waiting for word from the Ohio Supreme Court on this latest attempt.
"Kevin's had numerous times since I've represented him where we've felt like, 'What are we going to do? ... That's it, we've exhausted everything,'" Troutman told Scene in March of this year, months before the Third District ruling. "Then — if something's false — then the more you dig, the more you find. Literally every time I look for something, I find something new. It's a house of cards."
More than two decades span the time between the shootings and the present day. Keith has maintained his innocence all along. Troutman and the Ohio Public Defender's Office, backed by attorneys across the state and favorable legal observers, argue that the evidence at hand in 1994 lacks any credibility, that there is nothing that ties Keith to the Bucyrus Estates murders. Indeed, the evidence that Troutman has uncovered points singularly to an alternate suspect and to a conviction that raises more questions than answers.
This year, as they put forth the argument again in April, there was a sense of optimism among Kevin's family and his attorneys as they waited for a response from the Third District Court of Appeals in Lima. That optimism was squashed in routine fashion.
In its ruling, the three-judge panel wrote: "Over the years in his numerous appeals and post-conviction petitions Keith has challenged many aspects of his case and the evidence against him, but one fact remains clear, the evidence against Keith was simply overwhelming." That sentence is appended with a footnote, which reads: "Both at this trial and following his convictions Keith has strongly pursued the defense that another man committed the killings, specifically Rodney Melton. That theory was presented at trial, along with multiple other individuals the defense contended were the potential killers. Rodney Melton, along with the others, actually testified for the jury to see and hear and the jury rejected the defense's theories."
As the Third District judges acknowledged, there indeed was an alternate suspect in the murders, though police did not investigate him in 1994. There were opportunities for Keith's trial attorney to explore that avenue of defense at the time — the evidence was all there — but things moved very fast in the spring of 1994. Tunnel vision gripped the prosecution, and the Bucyrus case was swept quickly into legend. Once he landed on Death Row, that was it. Kevin Keith was stuck.
- Photo by Eric Sandy
With each passing year, more evidence is discovered that supports his claim of innocence. And while exculpatory evidence has piled up, no new evidence has surfaced in support of Kevin's murder conviction. The problem, as Kevin keeps learning, is that it's no easy task to get back into a courtroom.
In certain corners of the post-conviction criminal law world, many observers are waiting anxiously for word from the Ohio Supreme Court. It's a long shot, like every other court filing in Kevin's case. And it's a court that isn't in the business of correcting trial court errors.
"They won't take a case just to say that the lower court got it wrong," Troutman explains. "It has to be an issue that would impact more people. We initially have to make a demonstration that it's a significant constitutional question and one that could affect the public in general. Obviously, Yezzo didn't just testify against Kevin. We don't even know the extent of the damage she caused. We know that it happened in Kevin's case and we know that it happened in James Parsons' case. But we can't know at this point the extent. I don't know who all has filed or who all is even aware."
To the extent that Troutman even raises the idea of actual innocence in this case, she's doing so to underscore how alarming Yezzo's testimony really is — that Yezzo's work directly and unduly attacked Kevin's original claim of innocence. "This case is hanging by a thread," Troutman says. "Yezzo constitutes the forensic proof that you have that Kevin Keith is the person who committed this crime."
If the Ohio Supreme Court denies jurisdiction on this one, then Troutman says that the next step would be an attempt to get into the federal court system.
The problem with that route is that there's a spectrum of procedural roadblocks that would slow things down quite a bit, including a 1999 habeas petition filed by Kevin's former appellate attorneys. (A writ of habeas corpus is filed in federal court "to determine if a state's detention of a prisoner is valid," according to the Legal Information Institute.) Troutman and the Ohio Public Defender's Office would need to work around that and argue that even through there's a paper trail that indicates the federal district court had touched Kevin's case, that it hasn't really heard the case. However it goes down, though, the entry into federal court remains a ways off.
"I'd like to think that Ohio wants to clean up its own mess, so hopefully that occurs," Troutman says.
For Kevin's part, he remains at Marion Correctional, the latest stop in a 23-year run through the state prison system.
"I gave up on the law part of it a long time ago," he says, adding that he wanted to bring his Bible to the interview with Scene, but he hadn't cleared it with corrections staff. "Yeah, I did away with the law a long time ago. I'm here because of Christ, I can assure of that."
For years now, a sense of faith that he found in the mid-90s — one that pulled him out of depression and suicidal thoughts — has guided him. He talks cheerily of WordMasters, a Christian program that Kevin helped start. The group, which is now active in four Ohio state prisons, hosts events like the upcoming "Faith and Reform in Criminal Justice" forum. In a word, he's actively involved in his community.
"I was on Death Row for 16 and a half years," he says. "When I got into population, what I really saw was the result of pretty much my generation's actions. I'm just being honest here, you know? We sold drugs. Now, those same kids that were neglected, they're pretty much in prison now. When I left the street, these kids were — some of them was still in their mother's womb, some of them wasn't born, and some of them was running around being neglected. I was so stressed out, I was like, 'Lord, why did you send me here?'"
The path he walks now is both limited and, in other ways, divinely ordained. Still, he listens intently and talks regularly with his attorney and his brother. Outside Kevin's cell, the justice system lurches forward, only occasionally looking back to correct its mistakes.
There have been 62 exonerations in Ohio since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Of those, just about half were in connection with a murder conviction, and eight were Death Row inmates. Sixty percent of the exonerations were black prisoners. Against the state's wrongful conviction history, prosecutors have fought hard for 23 years to keep Kevin Keith out of the courtroom. In September, the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association filed a brief with the Ohio Supreme Court that argued that the court shouldn't even bother with this case. "There is no new law here for this court to issue," the organization wrote. "There is no conflict to resolve."
There's not a lot of resolution in the life of Kevin Keith. His trial attorney, James Banks, didn't even offer a closing statement on the most pivotal day of his life, the conviction.
"Did I ever tell you what his last words were?" Charles asked one day earlier this summer. "Did anybody ever tell you that? At the clemency, had he been getting ready to be executed, what his last word would have been? It was 'Help.'
"What else could you say?"