Billy Kuenzel said he was home asleep when store clerk Linda Jean Offord was
killed by a single shotgun blast on a rainy night in November 1987.
But Alabama prosecutors didn't buy Kuenzel's story and neither did a jury,
which convicted him and then sent him to death row. Kuenzel, 25 at the time of
the crime, is now 49 and still maintains is innocence.
On Monday, his lawyer asked the federal appeals court in Atlanta to grant him a
new hearing so he can present evidence to show Kuenzel did not commit the
crime. But a panel of three judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
did not appear inclined to grant Kuenzel the relief he seeks.
Kuenzel's lawyer, David Kochman, told the court that his client's former
roommate, Harvey Venn, who said he went to the convenience store with Kuenzel
and later testified Kuenzel was the killer, was the actual trigger man.
"This is not a case where we have a video of the crime," Kochman said. "If we
did, it would show Venn committed it."
Assistant State Attorney General Clayton Crenshaw told the court that Kuenzel
has long tried -- and failed -- to pin the killing on Venn and show he was
nowhere near the crime scene. This included Kuenzel's mother allegedly trying
to bribe a witness to give her son an alibi, he said.
"Kuenzel has made a pretty consistent effort to put this murder on somebody
else," Crenshaw said. "Every attempt has pretty dramatically blown up in his
Kochman said Kuenzel's case is unlike no other, largely because his initial
post-conviction appeal was found to have been filed 6 months too late, which
has barred the introduction of newly discovered evidence.
In the meantime, Kuenzel's lawyers have uncovered grand jury testimony that
throws into question the trial testimony of a key state witness and have
learned that Venn, shortly before Offord's killing, may have borrowed a
.16-gauge shotgun -- the kind used to kill Offord -- from a man who later told
his wife he was worried the shotgun may have been the murder weapon.
Innocence claims such as those raised by Troy Anthony Davis, executed last year
in the killing of a Savannah police officer, face enormous legal hurdles.
Davis, after being denied a hearing for years, was finally granted one through
an extraordinary ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. Even then, a judge rejected
In 1995, the U.S. Supreme Court said condemned inmates asserting their actual
innocence have to show "it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror
would have found [the inmate] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." Such inmates
must support their innocence claims "with new reliable evidence -- whether it
be exculpatory scientific evidence, trustworthy eyewitness accounts or critical
physical evidence -- that was not presented at trial."
On Monday, all 3 appellate judges indicated Kuenzel had not cleared such a
"You can spend all your time arguing actual innocence, but that doesn't go very
far with me," Chief Judge Joel Dubina said.
Judge J.L. Edmondson told Kochman he did "not want to dampen your spirits," but
he said he had closely studied the case and the lower-court judge's rejection
of Kuenzel's claims and believed it would be "close to impossible for us to say
your client carried the extraordinary burden you have to show."
Offord, who worked at Joe Bob's Crystal Palace in Sylacauga, Ala., was killed
Nov. 9, 1987. After witnesses said they saw Venn at the convenience store that
night, police questioned him. Venn initially said he was at the store with an
old school friend, not Kuenzel. But Venn later said he drove to the store with
Kuenzel and waited outside while Kuenzel went inside with a .16-gauge shotgun
to commit a robbery.
About 10 seconds passed, Venn testified, before he looked inside and saw Offord
thrown back from the shotgun blast.
Venn was the only one found with blood on him. And even though Venn testified
at trial that the blood came from a squirrel, prosecutors told jurors that the
blood was actually Offord's.
When asked Monday about the blood found on Venn, Crenshaw replied, "The blood
cannot be explained."
Venn pleaded guilty to his role in the killing and was the state's key witness
against Kuenzel. He was paroled after serving about 10 years in prison.
The only other witness to place Kuenzel at the scene was April Harris, who
testified at trial that she and a friend drove by the store and saw Venn and
Kuenzel there. But Harris' grand jury testimony, turned over to Kuenzel's
attorneys more than a decade after the trial, showed she was unsure of what she
"I couldn't get any description," Harris told the grand jury. "I couldn't
really see a face."
"April Harris is no longer a credible witness," Kochman told the court Monday.
But Dubina said jurors had ample reason to question Venn's credibility and
heard from other witnesses who saw 2 men at the scene.
"The jury heard all of this, weighed all of the evidence and chose who to
believe and who to disbelieve," Dubina said. "And they convicted your client."
"Respectfully," Kochman interjected, "the jury didn't hear all the evidence."
(source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution)