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Local Civil Rights Groups Rally To Support Retrial Of Former KU Student Convicted Of Rape

Albert Wilson (middle) was a student at The University of Kansas when he was first accused of rape in Sept. 2016.
Free Albert Wilson
Albert Wilson, pictured here in the middle with his brother and sister-in-law, was a student at The University of Kansas when he was first accused of rape in Sept. 2016.

Protesters say the recent social justice protests may have reignited the push for a new trial, but their support of Albert Wilson has never wavered.

Local civil rights groups are gathering together in support of a new trial for a former University of Kansas student they say was wrongly convicted of rape in 2019.

Albert Wilson was a 20-year-old student at KU when he was accused of rape by a then 17-year-old girl in Lawrence.

According to the Douglas County District Attorney’s office, the teenager met Wilson at the Jayhawk Cafe, a local bar, on Sept. 10, 2016. The victim said Wilson led her away from her cousin at the bar and then home where he raped her.

In 2019 Wilson was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but the Kansas Court of Appeals has now remanded the case to Douglas County District Court for a new trial to determine whether Wilson had ineffective counsel.

Local civil rights groups say they've never believed Wilson was guilty of the charge.

“We all strongly believe in his innocence. We have been fighting for Albert since day one,” said Latahra Smith, founder of the KC Freedom Project.

Smith is joined by a league of supporters across the country who began a social media movement called Free Albert Wilson.

Supporters maintain there were many factors that led to Wilson’s wrongful conviction including a lack of physical evidence, an all-white jury and an unjust legal system.

“Our system says innocent until proven guilty, but what they have flipped on us is they're making someone have to prove their innocence rather than prove their guilt,” said Sahj Kaya, director of the local justice organization, Exonerate MA People.

Kaya is one of the civil rights leaders speaking at Monday’s rally. Supporters will board buses in Wichita and head to Lawrence where they will gather in front of the Douglas County Courthouse.

Kansas lawmaker questions public defender's office

The rally was organized with the help of Kansas State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau who says demonstrations like these are necessary for those who fail to have their voice heard in the legal system.

“People of color, and white people who are poor, the only way they can get their voice heard is to get a rally of people to advocate for those individuals. We need to change that,” said Faust-Godeau.

One of the main ways she wants to give disenfranchised communities a voice is by improving the state’s public defender system.

This move is also inspired by Wilson’s trial and complaints that he was unable to afford his own attorney, forcing him to rely on a public defender who supporters say was too overworked to properly defend him.

Another major complaint surrounds Amy McGowan, former prosecutor of the Douglas County district Attorney’s office, and her involvement in the original case.

McGowen retired last year but faced years of criticism from criminal justice advocates for her work as a prosecutor in Jackson County. Advocates specifically cite her prosecution of Ricky Kidd, who was exonerated in 2019 after spending 23 years in prison for murder.

“They caused him to be in prison for so long, you know, an innocent person. Now we have a person that we know is innocent again, where it may have no proof, no DNA that he has done what they claimed he has done,” said Kaya.

According to the Lawrence Journal-World, McGowen faced a disciplinary hearing in early October for her conduct and will face another at a future date.

While the hearing is what Smith calls a step in the right direction, she says every case McGowen has been involved in needs to be reviewed. She also says the Freedom Project plans to launch a hotline for people to share complaints about their attorneys.

With the verdict still up in the air on Wilson’s new trial, she says she plans to continuing to pursue justice for him until he’s free — a promise she made to his mother before she passed nearly two months ago.

“I said I was going to fight for her baby until he came home so I'm not giving up this fight. We've been a voice since day one and we will continue to be a voice until the day that Albert Wilson is released,” said Smith.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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