KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Gov. Jeff Colyer stood on Tuesday in the modest sanctuary of Mount Zion Church of God in Christ to belatedly draw the hands of justice closer to Lamonte McIntyre, Richard Jones, Floyd Bledsoe and any other Kansan wrongfully convicted of a crime.
Bledsoe, of Burrton, along with the other men spent a minimum of 16 years in institutions operated by the Kansas Department of Corrections for serious offenses they didn’t commit. Each was part of a coordinated effort to build bipartisan support in the 2018 Legislature for a law signed by Colyer to financially compensate the unjustly convicted and extend to each health insurance, college tuition, housing assistance and other social services helpful to rebuilding a life.
“A great injustice was done to these three gentlemen,” Colyer said. “These three men showed compassion, they showed courage and they showed concern for other Kansans. These men stood up, and as Kansans, they were wise and gracious.”
Colyer, a surgeon from Johnson County who ascended to the governorship early this year, said the 16 years served by Jones and Bledsoe and the 23 years that McIntyre spent behind bars would have left most people defeated, consumed by anger or shattered inside.
“It would have turned us to madness,” the Republican said. “What I want to say to Lamonte McIntyre, to Floyd Bledsoe, to Richard Jones: We apologize to you, we love you and we will make it right.”
His signature on House Bill 2579 made Kansas the 33rd state to enact a wrongful conviction compensation statute. It was described by advocates as the “gold standard” for the nation. Individuals found by a court to meet the definition of wrongfully convicted would receive $65,000 for each year held on that conviction and $25,000 for each year wrongfully served on parole, probation or on a sex offender registry. The payments are not subject to state or federal taxation.
Exonerees in Kansas would receive cash, the social services and a “certificate of innocence and expungement” designed to formally clear their names. In the event of a civil award or settlement from a lawsuit brought by an exoneree, compensation from the state would be deducted or repaid.
Bledsoe was exonerated in 2015, while McIntyre and Jones were exonerated in 2017.
“It’s a great day, not only for me, Lamonte and Richard, but for everybody who will come after,” Bledsoe said in an interview. “I would gladly give this up for my 16 years back.”
He was found guilty in 2000 of first-degree murder in the shooting death of his sister-in-law near Oskaloosa but wasn’t released from prison until after his brother, Tom, committed suicide and left behind a note confessing to the slaying. DNA evidence also pointed to Floyd Bledsoe’s innocence. In Jefferson County, authorities first suspected Tom Bledsoe before mistakenly pinning the crime on Floyd Bledsoe, who was sentenced to life in prison.
McIntyre, wrongly convicted of a 1994 double murder in Kansas City, Kan., said compensation of nearly $1.5 million would give him an opportunity to live a productive life as a free man.
“Wow. This is an historical moment. I want to thank everyone who pushed for this bill and who prayed for me. This bill is very, very important,” he said.
Jones, convicted of robbery in Johnson County, said that when he began serving a 19-year sentence in 2001 it would have been impossible to convince him “there was light at the end of that long, dark tunnel. Now that light shines bright and I’m proud to be part of that light and that positive change.”
Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature worked on the bill with the Innocence Project in New York, the Midwest Innocence Project and an affiliate of the organization based at the University of Kansas. Provisions of the new Kansas statute are more comprehensive that in most states.
“We hope that neighboring states we work in — Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and Arkansas — will take notice and follow Kansas’ lead,” said Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican who helped refine language in the bill with legislators, advocates and state officials, said the state of Kansas owed the wrongfully convicted for snatching away years of their life. The reality of mistakes in the legal system should inspire the law enforcement community and the judicial branch of state government to right the wrongs, she said.
“We’re drawing a line in the wet cement, which will harden,” she said. “That means the judiciary process needs to look at themselves in the mirror. Law enforcement, even our police officers that are supposed to be there to serve us, if they have perjured, if they have been a part of that wrongful conviction, it’s time for district and county attorneys to take action to address those that have wronged the individuals.”
Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, said God brought Kansas to the point where leaders of both major political parties acted on the necessity for adoption of a compensation law.
“Finally, in Kansas, finally to receive a portion of liberty, life stolen. This is a proud day,” he said.