Taking Action Investigation: Does Billy Kuenzel belong on Alabama’s death row?

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There is a growing list of people who believe the state of Alabama holds a man on death row who does not belong there, and a growing body of evidence to support their claim.

Billy Kuenzel was tried and convicted for the 1987 killing of a Sylacauga convenience store clerk.  Now two decades later, we have discovered new evidence that not only casts doubt upon his guilt, it also calls into question the manner in which he was convicted.  WHNT News 19 has been investigating the case for more than a year.

Alabama is the only capital punishment state that does not automatically provide an attorney to guide death row inmates through the appeals process after their conviction.  As a result, a critical deadline was missed many years ago in Kuenzel's appeals, and because of that, the courts will not review even new evidence in this matter of life or death.

On November 9, 1987, Linda Jean Offord was shot and killed in the Sylacauga convenience store where she worked.   Prosecutors would call it a botched robbery attempt.  Harvey Venn, 18, was quickly identified as the primary suspect in the killing.

More than half a dozen witnesses said they had seen Venn sitting in his car outside the store with another man that night.  Venn was brought in for questioning and told investigators he had been sitting there talking with an old friend from school.

Investigators searched Venn's home, and found a pair of his jeans splattered with Linda Offord’s blood.  District Attorney Robert Rumsey told Venn he would face the electric chair, but he offered Venn a deal.  He could plead guilty to a reduced charge and be out of jail in 10 years, but he would have to testify against the man who was with him.

That's when Venn changed his story, saying it was his roommate, Billy Kuenzel, who was with him that night, and that Kuenzel killed Offord.

Kuenzel denied being with Venn that night. He told investigators he had stayed at home and had gone to sleep early. Rumsey offered Kuenzel the same deal he had made with Venn, but Kuenzel would have no part of it, proclaiming he was innocent. So Rumsey would take Kuenzel to trial.

There was a problem, though. In Alabama, you cannot convict a person of a crime on the testimony of an accomplice. Too great an incentive for the accomplice to lie in order to save his own skin. In order to even take the case to trial, Rumsey would have to come up with a corroborating witness to back up Venn's story, someone else who could put Kuenzel at the scene of the crime that night. Well, Rumsey found that witness, a 16-year-old girl.

April Harris had told investigators she had passed by the store that night, an hour -- maybe hour and a half before the crime.  She thought she had seen two men inside the store but it was dark and from the moving car, she said she couldn't make out who she saw.  She would later give the same story to the grand jury.

But by the time the case went to trial, April Harris' eyesight and memory had improved dramatically and she positively identified Harvey Venn and Billy Kuenzel as the men she had seen. Sixteen-year-old April Harris would become the state's corroborating witness, and later the wife of one of the investigators on the case, Ed Collier.

Harvey Venn was the first witness to testify at Kuenzel's trial.  Rumsey asked him if he and Kuenzel had any guns, and Venn said yes, sir.

Venn said, "I had a 12-gauge that I borrowed from a guy at work. And Billy had a 16-gauge he borrowed from his parents."

WHNT News 19 has uncovered new information in our Taking Action Investigation -- information that did not come to light during Kuenzel’s trial.  We've learned the gun Venn borrowed was not a 12-gauge shotgun, as he testified.  It was a 16-gauge shotgun, the same type used to kill Linda Offord.

"My stepdad lent him this 16-gauge shotgun," said Teresa Lewis.  Her father was Sam Gibbons.

Lewis was only a teenager when all of this happened, but she remembers clearly the worry and anxiety it brought upon her family.

"I didn't know all the details but I do remember my parents being very, very, very concerned that this gun was used in the murder because of course they didn't know at the time what liabilities it would have on my stepfather, whether or not he may be accused of being involved," said Lewis.

Her stepfather was not implicated in any way and a short time later, the gun was returned to him.  Teresa went to law school and practices in Huntsville.  As a defense attorney she has studied the Kuenzel case and how it was prosecuted, and calls it a travesty of justice.

"I could never fathom prosecutors here ever doing something like that, you know, as much as they may want to win because everybody knows it's not what you know, it's what you can prove," Lewis said.

Or in this case… what you can do to convince a jury.

Our interest in this case is focused on the trial itself, and the subsequent appeals.  We have a lot of questions, including whether the prosecution knowingly presented false testimony about the gun, and whether the state withheld critical evidence.

We have tried repeatedly to interview the prosecutor, Robert Rumsey. He has never acknowledged our requests.

Kuenzel's attorneys have tried to take this new evidence before the courts, and so have prominent people like Edwin Meese, former U.S. Attorney General.
But because of that missed deadline, each petition has been declined saying it's time barred.

Currently, Kuenzel’s appeals have been exhausted and the state is free to set an execution date.