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Presumed Guilty: The defense lawyer

Kiehl Rathbun remembers 30 years later the shock of hearing a jury pronounce Ronald Rhodes guilty of murder.

“I think they could see it on everyone’s face in the courtroom,” Rathbun said this week. “No one could believe it. The jury wouldn’t even talk to us afterwards.”

It was Rathbun’s first murder trial. He said the state had no physical evidence linking Rhodes to the 1981 killing of Cleother Burrell.

“They had a knife that was kind of the same,” Rathbun said.

Police recovered a knife a month after the killing on the roof of a tavern a block away. They said that was the murder weapon.

Rathbun said he sent an investigator to find a man who claimed to have witnessed the killing. But when he got on the stand, the man said Rhodes wasn’t the one who he saw stab Burrell.

“But he had picked him out of a photo earlier,” said Nick Klein, the judge who presided over the trial.

“I think the jury might have thought he was just scared of (Rhodes),” the retired Klein said, when reached as his home in Colorado this week.

Rathbun said there was a dispute over wehther the photo lineup used by police to identify Rhodes was legal.

Meanwhile, a new class at Washburn Law School has signed up to study the Rhodes’ case, and others.

I visited the class recently to familiarize the students with reporting I’ve done, including filing open records’ requests. Instructor Rebecca Woodman has assigned students to look over trial transcripts and evidence logs in the case.

Rathbun said he was eager to help provide information about the case. Although he lost his law license in 2007, Rathbun said he has overcome some personal issues that destroyed his legal career and is trying to rebuild his professional life. He said he’s currently working on a master’s degree in education and hopes to teach English some day.

And there’s still a matter of what happened to evidence that could be tested for DNA, which might answer some questions.

Woodman and I are planning to visit Rhodes next month at the Lansing Correctional Facility, where he is serving a life prison sentence.

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