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Presumed Guilty: Death of a transient

After the Washburn law students began raising questions about the murder conviction of Ronald Rhodes, I went to the morgue. The newspaper morgue.

It’s the place where clips used to be stored for easy reference in the days before electronic filings and Google searches. The Eagle didn’t begin electronically archiving articles until 1984. The Rhodes’ case even predated computers at the Sedgwick County Courthouse. When the law students wanted to read Rhodes’ trial transcript, we had to ask the file be brought back from where it was stored in boxes at the Hutchinson Salt Mines.

The Eagle’s morgue is now locked away on the third floor, filled with file cabinets of yellowing newspaper clips of stories written in the years before I joined the Eagle in 2000. But I recognized the byline on the first story: Thomas Shine.

Tom Shine is now deputy news editor for the Eagle — and my boss. He’s the editor who signs off on my stories, blog posts and gives the go-ahead on investigative projects, such as this one.

The article from Feb. 4, 1981, said Ronald Rhodes, 26, had been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Cleother Burrel, who police described as a 45-year-old transient. His body turned up Feb. 2 in an apartment complex at 630 N. Topeka.

Shine quoted Wichita police Capt. Mike Hill as saying Rhodes, Burrel and five other men were at the hotel complex when and argument erupted. Rhodes struck Burrel with a bottle.

“Hill said Burrel was stabbed about 20 times in the stomach, neck and back,” Shine reported. “Burrel was seen in the hallway after he was stabbed, Hill said, but police weren’t called for about 30 minutes because witnesses though he was intoxicated.”

Rhodes was on parole, after pleading no contest to shooting a man in the face over a pack of cigarettes, the story reported. “Court records show that Rhodes was sentenced to one to 10 years and paroled seven months later,” the story said.

Today, it may take six months to a year for a murder case to reach trial. Rhodes was convicted in three months.

Another Eagle article on May 27, 1981, said a jury deliberated about 5 1/2 hours over two days to reach a verdict that Rhodes was guilty of murder.

During the trial, only two of the five men in the hotel the night of the fight could be located, the story said.

“One witness who claimed to have seen the fatal attack said Rhodes was not the assailant. Another witness testified that he last saw Rhodes sitting on top of Burrel with a broken bottle. Other testimony indicated that Burrel was dead the next time anyone saw him.”

The Washburn studentd confirmed the conflicting testimony, after reading the transcripts. But they were also intrigued about the possibility evidence might still exist that could now be tested for DNA. Such testing wasn’t available until 1985.

Judge Nicholas Klein sentenced Rhodes to life in prison on Jun 26, 1981.

“Rhodes’ attorney Kiehl Rathbun sought a new trial for his client on the grounds that authorities had withheld evidence that might have implicated others in Burrel’s death,” the Eagle reported. “The evidence might have made a difference and should have been available to the jury, Rathbun argued.”

Rathbun was disbarred in 2007, partly for not competently presenting a defense during a criminal trial.

The evidence Rathbun argued about in Rhodes’ trial included fingernail scrapings from underneath Burrel’s fingernails, including hair and skin samples.

After 27 years in prison, Rhodes continued to contest his conviction. On March 12, 2008, Rhodes filed a request for DNA testing of scrapings from Burrel’s fingernails.

Authorities said they didn’t know where the evidence was.

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