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Defendant Serving Life Term For 1988 Explosion That Killed 6 Kansas City Firefighters Seeks Release

051320_fmc carswell.PNG_bureau of prisons
Bureau of Prisons
Darlene Edwards is imprisoned at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.

A motion filed in federal court in Kansas City on Tuesday says that Darlene Edwards suffers from a variety of chronic ailments, putting at her high risk for death or serious illness if she is exposed to the coronavirus.

One of five co-defendants sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of six Kansas City firefighters in a massive explosion 32 years ago is seeking compassionate release from prison.

Darlene Edwards, who is imprisoned in the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas, is asking that her sentence be reduced to time already served.

A motion filed in federal court in Kansas City on Tuesday says that Edwards suffers from a variety of chronic ailments, putting at her high risk for death or serious illness if she is exposed to the coronavirus.

“Given the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, Darlene’s age and health issues, we have asked the court to consider reducing her sentence to time served,” Edwards’ attorneys, Megan Egli and Bryan Pratt, said in an email. “The amendment to the First Step Act, to incentivize low-risk prisoners for early release based on time served, was designed for inmates like Darlene.”

Egli and Pratt work at the Kansas City-based law firm Shook Hardy & Bacon, which is handling the case pro bono.

Edwards is nearly 66 years old. She and her co-defendants were convicted in 1997 for causing an explosion at a highway construction site near U.S. 71 and 87th Street during the early morning hours of Nov. 29, 1988.

They were accused of setting fire to a tractor-trailer containing 25,000 pounds of low-grade construction explosives. Their alleged plan was to create a diversion from an attempt to steal tools, which they hoped to sell for drug money. The trailer blew up and the resulting blast could be felt throughout the entire metropolitan Kansas City area.

The Kansas City Fire Department sent two firetrucks to the scene. The first extinguished a burning pickup truck before joining the second pumper, where the storage trailer was on fire. When the trailer exploded, it instantly killed all six firefighters at the scene and ignited a second trailer filled with 30,000 additional pounds of explosives.

Edwards’ daughter, Becky, who was 11 at the time of the explosions, was one of the key witnesses at the trial, telling the court that a week earlier the defendants had made plans to steal equipment from the construction site. She later said that she was pressured to lie at the trial.

Although no physical evidence linked any of the defendants to the crime, a federal jury convicted them of arson resulting in multiple deaths. Judge Joseph E. Stevens Jr. sentenced them to life in prison with no possibility of parole. A federal appeals court later upheld the convictions.

Edwards was the girlfriend of co-defendant Frank Sheppard, whose nephew, Bryan Sheppard, only 17 at the time of the explosion, was also sentenced to life in prison. The younger Sheppard was released after a high-profile resentencing in 2017 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional for juveniles unless their individual circumstances are taken into account.

The motion asking for Edwards’ release says she has been a model prisoner, completing 125 courses in prison and holding numerous jobs. It says she has paid more than $14,500 from her prison earnings toward her court-ordered restitution amount of $536,000.

Over the years questions have been raised about the guilt of the defendants. The late Mike McGraw, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Kansas City Star, reported in a series of exhaustive investigative stories that many witnesses had been coerced into testifying against them.

The stories prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to review those claims. In 2011, it released a two-page summary of its findings concluding that there was no “credible evidence” to support the witnesses’ claims of coercion. But the summary also said that investigators had uncovered “newly developed pieces of information” suggesting that other people may have been involved in the 1988 act of arson leading to firefighters' deaths.

No other persons, however, have ever been charged in the case.

Edwards' motion for early release makes no claims of innocence. Rather, it says that her risk of contracting COVID-19, combined with her declining health, "warrants an immediate sentence reduction to time served."

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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