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Ralph Yarl’s family frustrated with delays, secrecy in case against 84-year-old Kansas City man

Supporters of Ralph Yarl, including members of his family, attended a preliminary hearing in Clay County Court on Thursday, only to see it postponed until August 31.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Supporters of Ralph Yarl attended a preliminary hearing in Clay County Court on Thursday, only to see it postponed until August 31.

Yarl’s family has little confidence in Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson, who they say failed to act aggressively from the beginning. “The whole world is watching Kansas City to see if there’s going to be accountability and justice for this teenage kid who merely rang the doorbell.”

The family of Ralph Yarl, the Black 16-year-old who was allegedly shot by a white Northland man, is frustrated with delays and secrecy in the legal case.

About two dozen people showed up for a preliminary hearing Thursday for Andrew D. Lester, 84, who has admitted to shooting Yarl, only to see it postponed until August 31. They wore T-shirts that read “Ringing a doorbell is not a crime.”

Lester appeared in court on Thursday, using a cane as he did on his first appearance on April 17, when he was charged with assault in the first degree and armed criminal action.

Upset about the delay, and unhappy with the previous day’s decision by Clay County Judge Louis Angles to seal the case, the family’s attorney, Lee Merritt, met with reporters via Zoom. Merritt said he asked for a special prosecutor in the days after the April 13 shooting and sought advice from Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, but Thompson, the Clay County Prosecutor, insisted on keeping the case.

The family quickly lost confidence in Thompson from the beginning, Merritt said, when there was a delay on arresting Lester and charges weren’t filed until days later. Before the national outcry about the shooting, Thompson wasn’t handling the case in the “aggressive, serious manner that it deserved,” Merritt said.

“He has bent over backwards to offer himself as someone who is transparent, as someone who is authentically looking for justice in this case, but his actions don’t always match his words,” Merritt said. “Either he lacks the ability to take appropriate legal action or he’s pulling his punches.”

A spokesman for Thompson, Alexander Higginbotham, said the prosecutor is merely following the legal process.

“Our hearts continue to go out to all impacted by this case,” Higginbotham said. “The focus of our office remains squarely on following the law and achieving justice. Our community deserves no less.”

Ben Crump, another attorney for the family, said they feel they must push for justice and he wondered whether Thompson would treat a white child victim with the same lack of zeal he's applied to Yarl’s case.

“The whole world is watching Kansas City to see if there’s going to be accountability and justice for this teenage kid who merely rang the doorbell,” Crump said.

Ralph’s mother, Cleo Nagbe, and his aunt, Faith Spoonmore, said the now-17-year-old Ralph is recovering, but still suffers from headaches, especially in the morning. His largest frustration, Spoonmore said, is that he has restrictions because of the head injury. He can’t play with his brothers in the backyard, she said, like jumping on a trampoline or throwing a football.

Spoonmore wondered why the court appeared to be more concerned with the health of Lester. He didn’t appear for a hearing on May 22 because of his poor health, including heart problems and a 40-pound weight loss.

“That is what we need to talk about,” Spoonmore said. “That is what the judge needs to understand: that Lester is suffering the consequences of his actions while Ralph is suffering the consequences of being Black in America.”

Nagbe said she’s proud of her son for wanting to get better, for making plans for his senior year in high school, and for thinking about college.

“We’re grateful that he’s here. He’s doing remarkably well, basically. We are facing the daily struggles of getting him to where he needs to be so that he can have the most normal senior year possible. That’s our goal.”

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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