ST. LOUIS (AP) — Missouri risks executing an innocent man next week, advocates for Kimber Edwards warned Monday, citing a key witness who says his testimony was coerced and the inmate's contention that his own confession was false.
Edwards, a 51-year-old former St. Louis jailer, was convicted of hiring Orthell Wilson to kill his ex-wife, Kimberly Cantrell, in 2000 in her suburban St. Louis apartment. His execution is scheduled for Oct. 6.
Prosecutors said Edwards wanted Cantrell dead so he didn't have to pay child support. Wilson was sentenced to life in prison after a plea deal in which he agreed to cooperate against Edwards. Edwards confessed to the crime.
But Edwards' attorney, Jeremy Weis, and Tricia Bushnell, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said Wilson has since said in an affidavit that he was trying to save himself from the death penalty when he cooperated against Edwards. Meanwhile, Edwards has recanted his confession.
"This could become a case where we could execute an innocent man without even looking at the evidence that he is innocent," Bushnell said.
Weis said he has asked the Missouri Supreme Court and Gov. Jay Nixon to halt the execution. Messages seeking comment from representatives for Nixon and Attorney General Chris Koster were not immediately returned.
Bushnell said false confessions are not uncommon. An Innocence Project examination of murder convictions overturned by DNA evidence found false confessions in nearly two-thirds of those cases, she said.
Edwards was diagnosed as autistic after his conviction, Weis said. Autistic people are more susceptible to confession to crimes they didn't commit, said Dennis Debbaudt, an expert on the relationship between those with autism and law enforcement.
Edwards and Cantrell had divorced in 1990, with Cantrell taking custody of their daughter, Erica. In early 2000, Edwards was charged for failing to pay child support. He faced a court appearance on Aug. 25, 2000.
Erica stayed with her father for three weeks prior to the hearing, but became concerned when she did not hear from her mother by Aug. 23. She called her aunt, who went to Cantrell's home in University City and found the body. Cantrell, 35, had been shot twice in the head the day before.
Wilson, a tenant in a rental property owned by Edwards, was arrested and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for killing Cantrell. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole after implicating Edwards.
Police said Edwards admitted to paying a man $1,600 for the contract killing.
In an affidavit in May, Wilson said he was "coerced by police to implicate Edwards" by threat of the death penalty. Wilson now says he acted alone. Weis said Wilson and Cantrell were in a relationship and he killed her after an argument.
"Kimber Edwards is completely innocent," Wilson said in his affidavit.
Edwards, meanwhile, has long contended he was framed and had no motive to kill his wife because the couple had worked out a child support agreement.
Edwards' supporters also claim racial bias in his conviction and sentencing — Edwards is black and was convicted by an all-white jury.
He was first scheduled to be executed in May, but the Missouri Supreme Court stayed the execution without explanation. Weis said the reprieve may have been because the attorneys were too busy with other cases to give attention to Edwards' case.