Life or Death: Supporters urge Alabama to re-examine case of man on death row since 1988

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There is a rapidly growing chorus of voices claiming the state of Alabama is holding an innocent man on death row. A number of veteran prosecutors, former attorneys general, religious organizations and even Hollywood actors, all pleading with the state to take another look at the case against Billy Kuenzel.

"This case isn't about anybody's feelings about capital punishment. It's about an injustice done, being done, continuing to be done to an innocent man and the remedy is not to forget about it but to just look at the facts," said actor Sam Waterston, known for his many years on the TV show Law and Order.

Billy Kuenzel has been on Alabama's death row since 1988. He is one of two men convicted for the shotgun slaying of a convenience store clerk on the outskirts of Sylacauga. But how he wound up on death row, and in particular why he remains there, is a source of controversy.

William Ernest Kuenzel (Photo: Alabama Department of Corrections)

William Ernest Kuenzel (Photo: Alabama Department of Corrections)

WHNT News 19 has been researching the case for several weeks. The story is really about three men: Billy Kuenzel, his roommate Harvey Venn and the man who prosecuted the two of them, Robert Rumsey.

After multiple witness accounts, investigators quickly identifed Venn as a suspect. He initially told them he and an old school mate, named David Pope, had sat in his car and talked.
No less than eight witnesses told investigators they had seen Venn there, but not one of them could identify the other man.

After several days, Venn changed his story and fingered his roommate, Billy Kuenzel, as the other man. He said it was Kuenzel who went in to rob the store and killed the clerk Linda Offord, a mother of three.

In exchange for his testimony, Rumsey offered Venn a reduced sentence of 10 years, instead of life in prison or a possible death sentence. Venn took the deal.
Kuenzel was arrested and offered the same deal -- cop a plea and be out in 10. He declined, saying he was innocent.

In cases like this, Alabama law requires a corroborating witness to support the testimony of an accomplice. Without that, there's no case. Rumsey found his witness, a 16-year-old girl who was a passenger in a car that drove by the area about an hour or so before the crime took place. April Harris testified she saw both Venn and Kuenzel inside the store, from a passing car, at a distance of some 200 feet, at night, while it was raining.

But the real problem with her testimony is that she had changed her story. She initially told investigators, and the grand jury, she couldn't make out who was in the store as they drove by. That information never made it to the defense team. Rumsey kept that and other key evidence secret for more than two decades.

Bill Willingham was Kuenzel's court-appointed attorney.

"As far as statements, witness statements, we had to rely on what we got from, that the state had already taken. The judge wouldn't allow funds for an investigator," said Willingham.

Willingham had worked for Rumsey for four years before starting his own practice, and this was his first capital murder case.

"He was one of the best prosecuting attorneys in the state back during those days," Willingham said.

"Was it intimidating to go up against him in a case like this?" Al Whitaker asked.

"It, somewhat, somewhat. I wasn't scared of him, I knew him fairly well, wasn't scared of him but he was... he had a way of kind of controlling the courtroom," Willingham explained.

In this case, Rumsey also controlled the evidence. In addition to Harris' statements, Rumsey kept secret the fact that Venn had a 16 gauge shotgun, like the one used to kill Linda Offord.

The defense was also never told Venn had originally identified another man in the car with him that night. The defense was never told that Venn went to see his girlfriend shortly before the killing, and she told investigators Kuenzel was not with him. He was by himself.

And there's more. A pathologist testified the convenience store clerk had apparently struggled with her assailant, and investigators noted Venn had scratches and bruises on him consistent with that sort of struggle. Plus, Harvey Venn had Offord's blood on the pants he wore that night.

There was no physical evidence linking Kuenzel with the crime -- not a fingerprint, not a spot of blood, nothing.

Kuenzel's trial lasted a day and a half, and when it was over, he was headed to death row. His court-appointed attorney, Bill Willingham, stepped aside at that point and Kuenzel was left without a lawyer on his case. It was during that time that a crucial deadline in the appeals process was missed. As a result, despite all of the new evidence uncovered, every subsequent appeal has been denied or dismissed because of that missed deadline.

Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says those rules, and deadlines, are there for a reason.

"We don't want anyone who's not guilty to be on death row but we're pretty certain, we're certain he's not innocent," said Strange.

"It's obvious that all of this evidence that wasn't heard at the time of trial would have had an impact in the mind of the jurors," counters David Kochman, who now represents Kuenzel. "We can't allow this to go forward. This is about innocence, this is about protecting life."

One week ago, Kuenzel's attorneys filed a new set of briefs with the Alabama Supreme Court. They're asking the court to recognize this is an extraordinary case with extraordinary circumstances. They only want a hearing where they can present all of the evidence. If they are not successful, the state can file a petition to set a date for Kuenzel's execution.

Harvey Venn is still living in the Sylacauga area. He got out of prison in 1998, but he wouldn't talk with us. He's going through a divorce right now and Robert Rumsey, who is now in private practice, is handling that case for him. Rumsey wouldn't speak with us, either.

April Harris, the young woman who thought she saw Kuenzel and Venn inside the store that night, eventually married one of the investigators in the case.

With all the evidence pointing to Venn as the killer, how was Kuenzel convicted?

We asked his attorney that question, and he says Kuenzel never took the stand in his own defense to rebuke the testimony of Harvey Venn.

There was also circumstantial evidence that incriminated Kuenzel. One of the worst things that happened was Kuenzel's mother tried to hire someone to provide an alibi for her son, and that came out in court. So in the end, the jury believed Venn.