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Melinda Henneberger

Kansas prosecutor induced perjury to convict mailman of murder. Will he be punished?

 
 

We always say that actions have consequences, but that depends whose actions we’re talking about.

Olin “Pete” Coones, for example, is a working man from Kansas City, Kansas. A mail carrier with five kids, one wife, no police record and zero connections or clout, Coones spent 12 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of murder. You know, because actions have consequences.

And now that the charges against 63-year-old Coones have finally been dropped? Now that a judge has found that the cops missed crucial evidence and the medical examiner got the autopsy wrong and worst of all, the prosecutor suborned perjury, suppressed exculpatory evidence and presented testimony that was “patently untrue,” where are the consequences for those actions?

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The prosecutor in the case, Ed Brancart, is not only still practicing and still prosecuting, but is now the senior deputy attorney general for the state of Kansas under Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

He puts away nursing and home health aides and other service providers for Medicaid fraud, for which Kansas paid him just over $92,000 last year. Brancart also serves on the board of trustees of the Kansas Prosecutors Foundation, which describes its mission as helping to “strengthen the criminal justice system for the benefit of the public and the integrity of professional prosecution services.”

Only, suborning perjury — inducing someone to lie under oath — is a crime, too. It’s to lawyers what plagiarism is to a journalist, or what falsifying research is to a scientist. It’s not like a malpractice finding against a doctor, which is usually the result of a mistake. Because suborning perjury is not a mistake, nor is suppressing evidence. These acts are intentional.

When I asked Stan Hazlett, who heads the Kansas office that disciplines attorneys, the Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, where suborning perjury falls on the spectrum of seriousness among all of the allegations his office looks at, he let out a little laugh. Which is the appropriate reaction, because this is like asking a judge in a criminal court where homicide falls on the spectrum of stuff not to do.

“That would be really serious,” Hazlett said, and is a “very uncommon” finding.

What Brancart did, according to Wyandotte County Judge Bill Klapper, in his decision last week vacating Coones’ sentence, is coerce testimony from Robert Rupert, a jailhouse informant he knew to be unstable and knew to have a history of dishonesty.

“The state suborned perjury,” Klapper said. And Brancart “failed to disclose the threats he made” to get the testimony that ultimately helped convict Coones.

Police ‘shoved a shotgun in my face’

Then working as a Wyandotte County prosecutor, Brancart knew Rupert had offered to testify in another case after he didn’t get the deal he wanted in return for offering to testify against Coones — in a case in which there was no physical evidence implicating him.

Brancart also stole, though the judge did not say that. He stole 12 years from Coones, who wasn’t there for his children’s graduations or weddings, for the death of his biological dad or the birth of any of his six grandchildren, the oldest of whom is 11 now.

In fact, none but the youngest of his grandchildren even knew of his existence until recently. Because Coones never thought he’d be free again, he’d begged his children not to pass the weight of the knowledge of his conviction on to the next generation.

At exactly 7 a.m. on April 7, 2008, Coones was driving his youngest daughter, Melody, then a high school freshman, and her brother Ben, who was a senior that year, to meet their school bus when police pulled in front of his car. At first, he thought he was being carjacked when officers in plain clothes jumped out with guns. But then other officers arrived in squad cars and handcuffed Pete, Ben and Melody, who was wearing her cheerleading uniform that morning, in full view of every kid on that school bus.

“They shoved a shotgun in my face,” Ben Coones, who is 29 now, said in an interview with most of their family. But terrified as he was, he was also keenly aware that “the school bus stopped at the end of the street and sat there for a few minutes.”

They held not only his dad but him and his sister, too, in separate interrogation rooms for hours, without counsel and without letting their mother Dee know where they were.

When they did go back to school, and for years afterwards, with teachers most of all, they were “the killer’s kids.” Dee put them in a different school, but the stories and the stigma followed.

“It went on for years,” says Quinn, who was little then and is 20 now, “with teachers, staff, students.”

“And he had to be perfect in school,” says Dee.

Even the one teacher who was nice to Ben, and was trying to talk him out of dropping out of school at 17 to help support his family, told him, “You don’t want to let other people’s actions define you.” That she thought she knew what those actions were was almost as hard on him as the taunts and the taint.

His father’s actions, as Ed Brancart almost had to have known, weren’t at all as presented in court.

Can AG Derek Schmidt let Brancart continue?

So what are the consequences? No one at the Kansas attorney general’s office has been willing to say a word, Brancart included, though Schmidt surely can’t think his senior deputy can continue to represent him or the people of Kansas in a court of law, or even with his signature on a legal document.

A complaint has been filed with the Kansas Office of the Disciplinary Administrator, though Hazlett can’t acknowledge even that much, because the whole process is confidential. After an investigation and hearings, the office could recommend disbarment.

Meanwhile, what of all the other cases Brancart touched, both as a prosecutor in Wyandotte County and for the state?

There have to be serious consequences for all that was stolen from Pete Coones, whose only previous brush with the law was the speeding ticket he got en route to his mom’s house on Mother’s Day in 1977.

There have to be repercussions for cheating Dee Coones out of the husband who calls her “the most beautiful girl in the world” and “my girl since we were 7 and met in 4-H.” And for cheating his kids out of the kind of father who knows to be proudest that they “are all successful in their marriages. Except the youngest, and he’s not old enough.”

The fraud that Brancart sold to the jurors in the case against Coones is surely no less serious than the Medicaid fraud cases he tries.

Authorities now believe, as they should have seen all along, that Kathy Schroll wasn’t murdered at all, but killed her husband Carl and then herself, after framing Coones by calling her mother to say that Pete was in her house and was going to shoot them both.

Caretaker stealing from Coones’ elderly father

Why? Coones had been suing to get his modest inheritance back from Schroll, who as a caretaker for his elderly father had helped herself to his bank account and made herself the beneficiary of his will.

At the time of her death, she was about to be busted for embezzling from the credit union where she worked. But the jury was never told that, and neither were Coones’ lawyers.

They did know she had spent Olin Coones Sr.’s savings, but Brancart told the jury that police couldn’t determine whether any crime had been committed, which was untrue. In fact, detectives had brought the case to the district attorney’s office, and Brancart himself had declined to prosecute it.

No physical evidence tied Coones to the deaths in Schroll’s home, where there was no sign of a struggle or of forced entry. Both Kathy and Carl were shot with her own gun, which was found next to her body, on her left side, and there was gunshot residue and blood splatter on her left hand. Initially, detectives had correctly sized up the scene as a murder-suicide. Until, that is, they heard about the call to Kathy Schroll’s mom at 2:21 a.m.

Less than five hours after that call, and two hours after first hearing Pete Coones’ name, police stopped his kids from getting on the school bus. As they told Coones, who still wasn’t as worried as he should have been, they knew they had their man. Detectives told them straight out that they wouldn’t be looking any further, and that at least was true.

In the end, though, it was the testimony from Rupert, the jailhouse informant, who claimed that Coones had confessed to him during the one day they’d shared a cell, but who got almost all the details about the crime scene wrong, that put Coones away, at his second trial.

And if there are no consequences for the fact that, as Judge Klapper found last week, Brancart threatened Rupert with more jail time if he didn’t go ahead and take the stand, well then what’s to prevent other prosecutors from perverting the system that Pete Coones had always taught his kids they could believe in?

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