Latahra Smith, left, founder of KC Freedom Project, works for people who allegedly were falsely convicted of crimes. Smith takes to the street with her daughter, Paisley Canady, to advocate for Keith Carnes, who was convicted of murder in a case handled by former prosecutor Amy McGowan. (Submitted to Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — KC Freedom Project founder Latahra Smith savors the rare court victory overturning a conviction and freeing someone falsely thrown in prison.
There is an inevitable celebration of newfound liberty with hugs from family and smiles for cameras, Smith said. Everything seems good, Smith said, but she also appreciates that years of unwarranted incarceration leaves men and women with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and sleep problems.
“When my brothers go home, and I say my brothers because I consider them all my brothers, when they go home, and when they’re in the bathroom by themselves, or they’re in the bedroom by themselves, trust me, they’re crying. They’re struggling,” Smith said. “They have a very hard time adjusting. People might not see it, you know, looking at their posts and pictures and videos on social media, but they’re hurting.”
And, Smith said, they’re the lucky ones.
Inside Kansas and Missouri prisons are inmates who endure decades without anyone hearing their call for freedom. Some are fortunate enough to catch the attention of Smith, who works through KC Freedom Project with a missionary’s zeal as legal assistant and private eye for people she believes were improperly arrested, charged, convicted and locked behind bars. She’s also invested in holding accountable warped prosecutors and muddling defense attorneys.
She said the legal system was capable of falling short due to inadequate investigations by law enforcement officers, unethical conduct by zealous prosecutors or the indifference of overworked or underpaid defense counsel.
“I can’t even really say they’re mistakes,” she said. “Some of these things that lead to these cases that I investigate, they’re not mistakes They’re intentional.”
Smith said election of district attorneys and county prosecutors should receive more attention from voters. When compelling evidence exists these powerful lawyers engaged in corrupt behavior, she said, the penalty ought to be swift and sufficient to deter others.
In recent years, Smith concentrated on Amy McGowan, who worked as a prosecutor in Kansas and Missouri. She was found by a judge to have withheld evidence in a Jackson County, Missouri, case that led to 23 years of incarceration for Ricky Kidd, who had been found guilty of a 1996 double homicide.
Kidd was exonerated by a Missouri judge in 2019. By then, McGowan had moved on to work for the Douglas County, Kansas, district attorney.
“I found out that Amy McGowan was a very dishonest prosecutor,” Smith said. “And, I found out by looking into various cases that she had the same method of operation.”
McGowan retired a year ago, but retained a license to practice law. Smith wants Missouri and Kansas to disbar McGowan to keep her from engaging in more courtroom injustice. With a license, Smith said, McGowan remained a “bit threat to the community.”
Smith’s interest in McGowan was intensified through her advocacy for Keith Carnes, a man successfully prosecuted by McGowan for murder in Kansas City, Missouri. Smith has devoted six years to digging into the double-homicide conviction of Carnes, who was sentenced to life in prison for the 2003 shooting death of Larry White at 29th and Prospect.
Smith said two women who testified against Carnes recanted, with one pointing to a different shooter. The women told her they were bullied by McGowan. Smith found three people who said Carnes was in an apartment at the time of the shooting. Smith said a defense attorney assigned to Carnes had a conflict of interest.
“I knew by reading his case that things didn’t add up,” Smith said. “Need to call a review of any case Amy McGowan has ever touched to be honest with you.”
‘Right the wrong’
She said correcting malfeasance in the legal system was hampered by investigators, prosecutors and judges not enthusiastic about taking part in admitting errors occurred. Government officials are loathe to help exhonerees launch lawsuits at taxpayer expense, she said.
“I just think they simply don’t want to right the wrong,” she said. “Here in the state of Missouri, just from what I’ve seen, they just don’t like to overturn these wrongful convictions, because they just don’t want to open that can of worms.”
Her work is personal and professional. In 2008, her son was arrested in Texas on a murder charge. Smith secured paralegal training and plowed into her son’s case. She convinced a judge to discharge her son’s first attorney, and discovered that court-appointed lawyer had done no work on the case. About 10 days before trial, she said, Texas prosecutors dismissed the charge.
“That’s when I knew that we can have innocent people. Had I not got in there when I did, my son right now today would be incarcerated serving life without parole.”
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