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Key evidence remains mystery in 1981 case

After months of reviewing reports and documents, questions still remain about a 1981 stabbing death in Wichita that sent a man to prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit.

“What we know is there were a lot of problems with this case,” said RebeccaWoodmanWoodman, adjunct professor at Washburn Law School, whose students have been studying the conviction of Ronnie Rhodes.

Two hairs from underneath the fingernails of the deceased, Cleother Burrell, were collected by a Wichita police crime scene investigator. It could provide valuable DNA evidence that could either confirm Rhodes’ guilt or support his claims of innocence.

While much of the evidence in the case has been disposed of, there’s no documentation indicating the hairs were among the items destroyed. A recent search through remaining documents in the case held by the Wichita Police Department shed no light on what happened to them. They were last marked as being sent to the sent to the WPD records department.

There are conflicting statements by a supposed eye-witness, Bruce Elliott, who could never positively identify Rhodes as the killer. Other witnesses said Burrell was still alive when Rhodes left Apt. 14, at 630 N. Topeka that night of Feb. 2, 1981. Elliott literally had blood on his hands and clothing when police interviewed him, after Burrell was stabbed 20 times.

“There are still more things to look at, including the reports from the KBI,” Woodman said.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation confirmed in response to a request for public records that it had two lab reports of evidence in Burrell’s killing. But the KBI refused to produce them. We’re going to encourage the agency to open those records in 2011.

Wichita police, meanwhile, have been helpful in producing whatever records they could find. This case doesn’t reflect on the current force. All of the detectives and officers who worked on the Rhodes’ case, except one, have died, said Lt. Ken Landwehr, current commander of the homicide division.

Without evidence, it will be difficult for Rhodes to get his case reopened. The U.S. Supreme Court has not recognized innocence as a valid legal claim.

“The burden remains on Ronnie to prove he’s innocent,” Woodman said.

Other states have Innocence Projects, which can provide free legal assistance. But no such project exists in Kansas. All Woodman and her students can do is research.

“One of the problems, right now, is that through my class we cannot represent anyone in a legal capacity,” Woodman said.

But she’s not giving up on Rhodes. He comes up for parole again in July. Woodman said one option would be to present the students’ findings to the Kansas Parole Board.

“If they see the problems with the case, even through there may not be enough evidence for exoneration, they may be inclined to look at his case more favorably,” Woodman said.

Students who just finished Woodman’s class, meanwhile, called it an “eye-opening experience.”

“Before I took this class, I guess I knew about the issue of wrongful convictions, and I knew it could happen. I just didn’t know how easily it could happen,” said Dustin Crook after one of the final classes. “But I’m even more surprised that people aren’t up in arms over the issue. I can’t imagine it happening to me or a loved one. It’s heartbreaking.”

Rhodes, 56, just spent his 30th Christmas in prison. He remains involved with the “Reaching Out from Within” support group, where he serves as treasurer.

Janet Weiblen, a Kansas City-area pastor who runs the group at the Lansing Correctional Facility, calls Rhodes a mentor. There are currently more than 40 inmates in the group, which meets Monday evenings.

“He has the respect of a lot of the guys, both the younger and older ones,” she said. “He can talk to them in ways I never could do.

Weiblen said Rhodes recently started an aluminum drive, where the men save soda cans to give to the unit supervisor. Money earned from collecting the cans will be donated to a local charity.

Last Monday, Weiblen hosted the group’s annual Christmas party at Lansing. Weiblen said she brings in snack trays, cider, gourmet coffees and other holiday trimmings. She said the program also provides Christmas boxes for the men, which include shampoo, toothpaste, a new toothbrush and “other items they need.”

“I always bring cream puffs,” she said. “It’s the first time many of the men have ever had a cream puff. I just tell them, ‘trust me’ and pop it in their mouths. You should see the looks on their faces.”

Rhodes said the party provides a bright moment that’s rare behind prison walls.

“Holidays in prison are terrible and (have) been for me for a lot of years,” Rhodes said. “I look forward to our group’s Christmas party each year.”

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