Mo. governor candidate's legal work draws scrutiny

Mo. governor hopeful was riveting force in court; judges questioned propriety of some tactics

AP News

Jun 08, 2008 16:00 EDT

As a star prosecutor, Kenny Hulshof's commanding presence and oratorical skills led to convictions in some of the state's most gruesome death penalty cases — and paved the way to six terms in Congress.

Now Hulshof wants to be governor of Missouri, a job that includes the ability to grant a pardon or commute a death sentence.

But in the midst of his Republican primary campaign against state Treasurer Sarah Steelman, his seven-year record as a state prosecutor specializing in small-town murder cases is coming under scrutiny.

An Associated Press review of court dockets, state and federal appellate decisions and other legal records shows that in four cases over that seven-year period prosecutorial errors by Hulshof led to death sentence reversals.

Another man accused of murder won acquittal at a second trial after his Hulshof-prosecuted conviction was rejected on appeal. A sixth defendant sentenced to life in prison without parole briefly won his freedom when his conviction was thrown out by a federal judge, although it was later restored.

And a sheriff who helped Hulshof convict a man in the 1992 killing of a college student has reopened the investigation into her violent death. On Monday, a judge will hear a request for a new trial in that case. No appeals court has faulted Hulshof's conduct in that case.

Hulshof's errors cited by appeals courts often occurred during closing arguments, or in a trial's penalty phase. Judges said Hulshof too readily embellished arguments with his own opinions, or with facts outside the court record.

In one case, a murder conviction was tossed because a highway map given to jurors during deliberations hadn't been introduced as evidence. In another, an undated note from a woman allegedly killed by her husband describing the couples' marital troubles was rejected as hearsay by an appeals court after Hulshof introduced it as evidence.

"This is kind of the way he operates," said Sean O'Brien, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who represented Faye Copeland and Dale Helmig — two of the six defendants whose Hulshof-led sentences were overturned — as an appellate defense lawyer.

"He's always very aggressive. He is extremely skilled. And he creates suspicion out of no evidence."

Hulshof says the seven disputed cases show that the legal system and its inherent checks and balances worked as intended.

"The tension of the system working is that you have an aggressive defense attorney, and you have a tough but fair prosecutor," he said. "And once you walk into the courtroom ... you have equal adversaries presenting a case to a jury. The judge is the referee. And then whatever the jury says is justice."

Hulshof, 50, began his legal career in 1983 as an assistant public defender. His clients included Jerome Mallett, who was convicted in 1986 of murdering a state trooper. Mallett was put to death in July 2001, with Hulshof — by then an incumbent congressman — viewing the execution at his own request as a state's witness.

Hulshof joined the office of Cape Girardeau prosecutor Morley Swingle in 1986, spending three years as Swingle's top assistant before joining the attorney general's office.

Swingle called his protege a tenacious courtroom advocate with a flair for connecting with the jury.

"Kenny was one of the best trial lawyers I had ever seen," Swingle said. "He is such a persuasive speaker. He could really get a jury to see the facts his way. He could tell a suspenseful story and keep people's attention."

Hulshof's courtroom adversary in the Mallett trial, state special prosecutor Tim Finnical — known as "Dr. Death" for his success at death penalty cases — recommended that then-Attorney General Bill Webster, a Republican, hire Hulshof as his successor. When Democrat Jay Nixon defeated Webster in 1992, the new attorney general kept the Republican attorney on board.

Nixon, who remains attorney general, is the likely Democratic nominee for governor. His role as Hulshof's former boss makes it unlikely that Hulshof's prosecutorial record will become a campaign issue, Hulshof acknowledged.

The Steelman campaign, however, is not reticent.

"Kenny Hulshof has been running away from his overspending and earmark record in Congress," said Steelman spokesman Spence Jackson. "Now these revelations bring into question his overall competency and ability to do the job it takes to be governor. This is a very disturbing pattern of behavior from Congressman Hulshof."

Hulshof says his courtroom conduct, like his 12-year congressional record, is fair game for scrutiny as he runs for governor. He's confident that any inquiry would reveal nothing less than a fair and impartial advocate.

"My father never finished college, he never made a lot of money, but still was the wisest man I ever knew," said Hulshof. "And he said that the only thing worth keeping in life is your good name.

"That has motivated me through these past 12 years in Congress. It would motivate me as governor. And it certainly motivated me throughout those years in the criminal justice world."

Source: AP News