Kansas City Man Asks For Release From Life Sentence In Deaths Of Kansas City Firefighters
It's been nearly 30 years since six Kansas City firefighters were killed in an explosion after responding to a call about a truck on fire at a construction site near U.S. 71 and 87th Street. But the crime remains present and painful, particularly since further investigations cast doubt on whether the five people sentenced to life in prison actually committed the crime.
On Wednesday, Bryan E. Sheppard, one of the men convicted, appeared before U.S. District Judge Fernando J. Gaitan Jr. not to argue his innocence but to argue that his sentence was unconstitutional.
Sheppard was 17 at the time of the explosion. (The other four were older.) In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for people under 18 are unconstitutional, a decision that ultimately led to a new sentencing hearing for Sheppard.
In Gaitan's courtroom Wednesday morning, Sheppard, who is now 45, and others testified that he had grown up and reformed himself during the 22 years he's spent in prison, undergoing drug-addiction and mental-health treatment, maintaining sobriety, obtaining his GED, embracing spirituality and serving as an exemplary prisoner.
Relatives of firefighters who had been killed, however, argued that Sheppard's life sentence should stand.
Sheppard's attorney, Cynthia Short, said his case represented "the very essence" of the Supreme Court's ruling regarding mandatory life-sentences for minors. Short, along with expert and character witnesses, said Sheppard had an excellent chance of successfully reintegrating into society.
Testimony in support of Sheppard's release included emotional comments from his daughter, Ashley Keeney, who was 8 at the time of his conviction and now has children of her own. Although he's in prison, Keeney said, she has made sure Sheppard's grandchildren have a relationship with him.
"He's been a better father to me than a lot of people walking the streets," Keeney testified. "He goes out of his way to let me know how much he loves me. I'm proud of him, and grateful that he sets an example of bravery and how you can turn your life around, have hope, work hard and be motivated."
Federal prosecutor Paul S. Becker maintained that a crime so severe and long-lasting in impact deserved a similarly severe and long-lasting sentence.
Gaitan concluded the hearing by saying he had much to consider. He did not say when he would rule.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.