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Kansas judge says prosecutor’s misconduct helped convict innocent man. What will the next AG do?

Jason Tidd

Pete Coones was innocent, but Wyandotte County's Ed Brancart, who now works for Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, committed prosecutorial misconduct to get the murder conviction.

A Kansas judge said former Wyandotte County prosecutor Edmond Brancart engaged in serious prosecutorial misconduct to win a wrongful conviction.

Among the litany of misconduct identified by the judge, Brancart suborned perjury from a jailhouse informant, whose lies helped send an innocent man to prison for 12 years for a deadly shooting he didn’t commit.

Brancart remains a prosecutor, working for Attorney General Derek Schmidt, even after the Kansas Attorney General’s Office approved more than $826,000 in compensation to the estate of Olin “Pete” Coones, who died months after his exoneration.

It is unclear whether Brancart will keep his $100,000-plus job prosecuting fraud when a new boss takes over. Schmidt is running for governor, and Kansas voters will choose a new attorney general in the Nov. 8 election.

Neither Republican Kris Kobach nor Democrat Chris Mann committed to dropping or keeping Brancart on staff if elected.

“I don’t know the circumstances of the case,” Kobach told reporters after a debate in Topeka last week. “But obviously, just with prosecutorial misconduct, just like with police conduct misconduct, you have to have a full and fair investigation. So I’m not going to comment on him because I don’t know anything about the facts of that case.”

“I’m not familiar with the case,” said Mann after the debate and who has previously worked with Brancart. “I’d have to look at it before I made any decision, just like any HR decision, and we’d go through an HR department.”

Mann was a prosecutor in the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s Office from March 2011 to September 2013, after the Coones conviction in 2009. Brancart was promoted to co-chief deputy district attorney for Wyandotte County during that time.

“We are disappointed in the legal system’s lack of meaningful accountability,” said Dee Coones, Pete Coones’s wife, in a statement from the family. “The Attorney General of Kansas, current or future, should be familiar with the people they’ve entrusted with the responsibility of enforcing the law. The people of Kansas deserve better than an Attorney General who buries his head in the sand, refusing to acknowledge problems in his office and making no attempt to fix them.”

Ed Brancart remains a prosecutor for Derek Schmidt

Republican former Secretary of State Kris Kobach, left, and Democratic attorney Chris Mann are facing off in the Kansas attorney general's race.

Saturday is the two-year anniversary of Coones’ exoneration. But he had only 108 days to live as a free man.

Coones died Feb. 21, 2021, at age 64 of cancer that went undiagnosed and untreated during his wrongful imprisonment.

“Mr. Coones was incarcerated for 12 years and 213 days … unfortunately, he subsequently passed away,” said Dennis Depew, the deputy attorney general for civil litigation.

Depew had the job last summer of explaining to a council of top legislators and the governor why taxpayers were compensating Coones’ estate to the tune of about $820,000 in damages and more than $8,000 in attorneys fees. He said an attorney general investigation confirmed Coones was innocent and cited the Shawnee County District Court judgment ordering the compensation and expungement.

“Coones was and is innocent of the crime of first degree murder for which he was mistakenly convicted,” Shawnee County District Judge Teresa Watson wrote, approving the $65,000 in damages for each year imprisoned as set by Kansas law.

More:Kansas inmates say medical care is so bad ‘they will let someone die … before they try to help’

But Depew failed to mention that Coones was put behind bars because of misconduct by a local prosecutor who is now a high-ranking assistant attorney general.

Brancart is the deputy director of the attorney general’s Medicaid fraud and abuse division. A government salary database shows his compensation was $110,316 in 2021. He also remains listed on the board of trustees for the Kansas Prosecutors Foundation.

Wyandotte County District Court Judge Bill Klapper vacated the conviction on Nov. 5, 2020.

While Klapper’s order doesn’t mention Brancart by name, the judge ruled that the trial court prosecutor violated the defendant’s constitutional rights by suppressing evidence on multiple occasions and knowingly eliciting false testimony from a jailhouse informant.

Klapper said the prosecutor “committed prosecutorial error and misconduct.” The prosecutor “knowingly suborned perjured testimony” and “failed to correct the false testimony when it appeared on the record.” He also “suppressed material, exculpatory, and impeaching evidence.”

More:Family of wrongfully convicted Wyandotte County man to receive $826,000 in settlement

Pete Coones called for accountability

“In today’s world, it’s all about wins and losses,” Coones told KCTV before he died. “And if you win by sending an innocent man to prison, is that a win? I don’t think so. I think that’s a terrible loss.”

He called for accountability.

“If there’s no accountability for one, there can be no accountability for everyone,” Coones said.

In response to a question about whether Brancart has or will potentially face any discipline, a spokesperson said the Attorney General’s Office doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt continues to employ Ed Brancart as a fraud prosecutor after a judge ruled that Brancart had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct while previously working for the Wyandotte County district attorney.

The Kansas Office of the Disciplinary Administrator reviews and investigates complaints of misconduct against attorneys and recommends discipline to the Kansas Supreme Court. It isn’t publicly known whether any formal complaints have been lodged against Brancart in relation to the Coones case, or the status of any such complaints.

“Whether a complaint has been filed against an attorney is not public information,” said disciplinary administrator Gayle Larkin, unless and until an attorney is disciplined after a review committee finds probable cause that the attorney violated the rules of professional conduct.

Discipline can range from informal admonition to censure, probation, suspension or disbarment. Brancart has no history of discipline, Larkin said.

“I must admit, I am angry,” Melody Bitzer, one of Coones’ children, testified before legislators last year. “Angry that lies are valued higher than the truth. Angry that an untrustworthy ‘witness’ and a selfish DA used immoral practices and lies in order to win at the expense of an innocent man’s life.

“I’m angry that there is still nothing in place to protect innocent people from this happening again and again. I’m angry that there is no accountability for so called ‘informants’ or the prosecutors that use them, even knowing they have records of lying.”

Coones’ family and advocates, including the Midwest Innocence Project, have tried to push a jailhouse informant bill, HB 2366, through the Kansas Legislature. It was introduced 10 days before Coones died. It passed the House unanimously in April 2021. The reform bill died in the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring.

The legislation would have required prosecutors to disclose various information regarding jailhouse snitches, including any cooperation agreements, while defendants facing the most serious of charges could request pre-trial hearings on an informant’s reliability.

What happened to Pete Coones?

Court records, media accounts, advocates and The National Registry of Exonerations detail what happened in the Coones wrongful conviction case.

Coones, a retired postal worker, was engaged in a financial dispute with Kathleen Schroll, who had been the housekeeper for Coones’ late father. Evidence suggests Schroll was mired in debt, had been embezzling from the credit union where she worked and had been taking advantage of the elder Coones for years.

Schroll and her husband, Carl, were found dead in their home the morning of April 7, 2008. Police initially thought the case was a murder-suicide — which is now the accepted view of what happened, with Schroll framing Coones to protect life insurance benefits for her heirs — but pivoted the investigation to Coones.

He was arrested the same morning while driving his children to school.

No physical evidence connected Coones to the killing, while he had an alibi. Other evidence supported the murder-suicide theory, including that police found Schroll’s DNA on the gun’s trigger.

Still, Coones was convicted of killing Kathleen Schroll but acquitted of her husband’s murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.

But that conviction was tossed about six months later when a judge found that Brancart had failed to disclose evidence.

During the new trial later in 2009, Brancart brought in a new witness: Robert Rupert, who had briefly spent time in the same Butler County Jail pod as Coones. Rupert testified that Coones had confessed to him. But at multiple points, Rupert’s testimony was contradicted by the facts of the case.

Officials later found that Brancart made several false statements during the retrial. One such lie was that police had no evidence that Schroll had been stealing from Coones’ father. In fact, Brancart had declined to charge Schroll after police had presented him evidence of elder abuse.

Coones was convicted again, and again sentenced to life in prison. The Kansas Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 2014, with Brancart arguing the case. Schmidt joined the briefs, as did then-district attorney Jerome Gorman.

More:Kansas tax attorney accused of sexual harassment, bizarre rants

Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree breathed new life into the case when he established a conviction integrity unit in 2018.

His defense team outlined a litany of prosecutorial misconduct in a 202-page amended motion to vacate the conviction in October 2020, which was partially granted the next month.

Brancart concealed evidence of Schroll forging checks from Coones’ father and embezzling money from work, the defense team said. Despite being told by other prosecutors that Rupert was an unreliable jailhouse informant, Brancart threatened Rupert with jail time if he didn’t cooperate while promising to help him out in the prison system. Brancart also failed to disclose how many crimes Rupert had been convicted of.

“Pete served over 12 years for a crime he did not commit after investigators and prosecutors hid and manufactured evidence to wrongfully convict him of murder,” his attorneys at the Morgan Pilate law firm and the Midwest Innocence Project said when he died.

His attorneys said they still wanted accountability.

“We will keep demanding justice in his memory,” they said.

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