How Are These Crimes Different?

Bertha Owens photo by Kevin A. Roberts, courtesy of St. Louis Magazine.

 

 

 

An unfamiliar number on my cell phone. When I say hello, a man’s voice informs me, sounding anxious and angry, that there will be a hearing for Walter David Kemp in three days.

I know that name all too well, but I do not immediately recognize the voice. I am scrambling for a response when the man continues:

 

“He murdered my daughter.”

 

Ah, yes. The caller is Eric Davis. We spoke three years ago, right after Kemp confessed to killing Haley Davis. From what her father could piece together, Kemp had gone to her South City apartment one evening looking for her ex-boyfriend’s father, who he said had ripped him off. She and her roommate kicked him out. Enraged, Kemp returned the next morning with a handgun. The roommate had already left for work, and Haley, who weighed all of a hundred pounds, was there alone. When she again tried to make Kemp leave, he turned and fired—multiple times.

You know how things can be horrific but not surprising? I had interviewed Walter David Kemp twenty-one years earlier, when he was in prison for raping a young woman hostage at gunpoint for eleven hours and sodomizing her seven times. “She came out pretty good,” he said, referring to the $500,000 settlement her apartment complex paid. “You tell her she owes me.”

The settlement came because the landlord had not revealed to the twenty-three-year-old, nervous about living alone for the first time and eager to find a safe apartment, her neighbor’s violent criminal history.

I wrote up that history after Haley Davis’s murder, trying to fathom why Walter Kemp kept sliding through the system. By age twenty, he had been convicted of burglary, assault, and resisting arrest. After his release from the Algoa State Reformatory, he was rumored to have raped a police officer’s daughter, although there was no solid evidence. (I did find that four police officers, one of them the Ellisville chief of police at the time, were indicted after Kemp accused them of kidnapping him and roughing him up.)

A year later, in 1976, Kemp robbed and beat an elderly couple. Not long after, he blasted a shotgun into a man’s vehicle and killed him as he drove by on Route 66. He would eventually plea-bargain a twenty-nine-year sentence for those offenses. Two days after the drive-by, he was charged with robbing a restaurant and killing its manager, whose body was found in a remote area, a bullet hole in the back of his head. Police said he confessed but insisted it was an accident. Hotshot defense attorney Charlie Shaw got Kemp acquitted.

The same year, he was alleged to have shot and killed a security guard while robbing a Speedy Food Mart. This time, the Missouri Supreme Court blocked Franklin County from trying him because the prosecutor filed late and did not request an extension.

In 1981, while in prison for the plea-bargained cases, Kemp was convicted of assaulting another inmate, but the sentence was made concurrent with the time he was already serving.

In 1990, after serving less than half of that twenty-nine-year sentence, he was released to a halfway house. Police heard him threatening to kill witnesses who had testified against him, and he was returned to prison—but he was back at the halfway house by May of the same year.

In June, he was arrested for allegedly abducting a twenty-year-old woman from a parking lot and sexually assaulting her nine times. She escaped and ran, bloodying her bare feet, then called police when she reached safety. Kemp was acquitted; his attorney told the jury the sex was consensual.

Kemp violated parole and was sent back to prison, where he assaulted other inmates, then was again paroled. In 1998, he terrorized and sodomized the young woman for eleven hours, threatening to kill her and put her body in storage in the basement, where nobody would ever find it. He went back to prison.

And when he was released, he killed Haley Davis.

 

 

•  •  •

 

 

Around the same time, I was reporting the case of Bertha Owens, who had already been in prison for more than two decades. In 1996, a man had been beaten senseless, his TV and VCR stolen. He later died—after a surgery for a bowel problem that developed from treatment, not directly from the beating. The assault charge was raised to second-degree murder.

Owens was addicted to crack cocaine and had stolen a VCR from the man months earlier. She told me she thought it was hot—it was in the original box—and she was mad because he had assumed she was a prostitute. Earlier on the day of the assault, she was in another apartment in the same complex, a party house where she got high. High enough that she had only the vaguest alibi for the evening.

The most solid evidence against her was the testimony of Felicia Jones, who said that she had acted as lookout and Owens had masterminded the crime, with Jones’s boyfriend and another man as accomplices.

All three were convicted, Owens receiving the longest sentence: life plus forty-five years. She appealed and lost.

During the appeal, when Jones was asked about contradictions in her testimony, she admitted, “A lot of stuff I said was to make them leave me alone.” She had pending charges for felony theft at the time. She later told multiple people that she had lied, but she was scared to sign a statement because she might be charged with perjury.

The chaplain said Jones told her, “‘My mom told me on her deathbed I needed to make this right. I would be there for hours and they would have me practicing to prepare for court. They told me they would take my kids from me, and I couldn’t let that happen.’”

After one pro bono attorney retired and another was killed in a car crash, the detective (a former police officer) who agreed to investigate her case filed a petition himself, asking that Felicia Jones be deposed: “Over the last five years, Ms. Jones has told at least five people . . . that she lied about observing the attack on Mr. Huff under pressure from a police detective and a prosecutor in order to avoid being charged herself and losing custody of her children.”

The petition was denied.

I found Felicia Jones online and messaged her, saying that I heard she was coerced into her testimony. She replied: “I don’t want to relive that madness or talk about it but yeah their telling the truth.” She said she “agreed to be a witness so they would stop harassing me and my family. I was tired of that.” She added that she never signed anything: “It was all done verbally.”

The prosecutor in Owens’s case was Nels Moss, who was later accused of prosecutorial misconduct in twenty-five cases and had eight convictions reversed.

Kemp is sixty-seven. He was never off probation for more than a year without reoffending. At the hearing, he was sentenced to twenty years for, like Owens, second-degree murder. Eric Davis says he was told Kemp might be out in seventeen years—at which time he will be in his eighties and still capable of hurting someone.

Owens is sixty-three. She has been in prison for decades and will never be granted probation. Her prior record before this case consisted of violating a stop sign and driving without a license.

What makes the difference here? White man versus Black female? A harsh prosecutor, in Owens’s case, at a time with little oversight of the legal system?

We will likely never know. But there is so much talk about inequity and injustice that it sometimes washes over me. Seeing the particulars unfold is a lot more painful.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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