William Kuenzel, Who Claimed Innocence From Death Row, Dies at 60

William Kuenzel, a prisoner whose unsuccessful challenges to his murder conviction in 1988 attracted support from prominent but disparate legal figures — including the conservative former U.S. Attorney General Edwin C. Meese III and Robert M. Morgenthau, Manhattan’s liberal, longest-serving district attorney — died on Saturday at the William C. Holman Correctional Institution in Atmore, Ala. He was 60 and had been on death row for 34 years.

David Kochman, his lawyer, said the cause was colon cancer that had spread to his liver and pancreas.

Substandard legal representation at trial, witnesses who change their stories, and the prosecution’s withholding of potentially exculpatory evidence are often grounds for overturning a conviction. But those factors were not enough to help Mr. Kuenzel after he was arrested in November 1987 and charged with killing Linda Offord, a clerk at Joe Bob’s Crystal Palace convenience store in Sylacauga, Ala., with a single shotgun blast.

Mr. Kuenzel (pronounced KEN-zel) was implicated in the crime by his roommate, Harvey Venn. At first, Mr. Venn said that he had been outside the store at the time of the shooting and that Mr. Kuenzel had probably been at home. But after his arrest, Mr. Venn accused Mr. Kuenzel of being the trigger man and testified against him in 1988 in exchange for a reduced prison sentence. Insisting on his innocence, Mr. Kuenzel refused to take a plea deal.

Despite apparently exculpatory evidence, including incriminating blood on Mr. Venn’s pants — which he said was from a squirrel but which the prosecutor admitted was the victim’s — Mr. Kuenzel was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to be electrocuted.

Mr. Kuenzel met with more than 20 years of resistance to his hope for a new trial because of a late filing of an appeal in 1993 — a procedural issue that he could never overcome in state and federal courts even after Alabama’s state’s assistant attorney general in 2010 turned over evidence that had been withheld at the original trial. It included handwritten notes from Mr. Venn’s police interview in which he said that Mr. Kuenzel had been in bed at the time of the shooting.

William Kuenzel, second from the left, with Katherine Moore, a member of his legal team, David Kochman, his lawyer, and John F. Taylor, an investigator, in 2019.Credit…via David Kochman

The cache of new evidence also included a transcript of the grand jury testimony of a witness who had been equivocal about seeing Mr. Kuenzel and Mr. Venn in the store as she drove by in a car, but who testified with more certainty at the trial. Her testimony provided critical corroboration of Mr. Venn’s assertion that Mr. Kuenzel had been an accomplice.

“I feel certain I couldn’t tell what they were wearing or give a description of them because we were going, driving by,” the witness, April Harris, told the grand jury, “but judging from the stature of the people that were in there, I believe that it was them.”

Mr. Kuenzel petitioned the United States Supreme Court to review the case, and in a friend of the court brief filed in 2013, Mr. Morgenthau, who had by then retired as the Manhattan D.A., along with Gil Garcetti and E. Michael McCann, former district attorneys of Los Angeles and Milwaukee respectively, argued that new evidence that had not been available to Mr. Kuenzel demanded a new trial.

“Kuenzel’s new evidence decimates the prosecution’s case,” they wrote, “making it clear that any reasonable jury would likely have had reasonable doubt” about Mr. Kuenzel’s guilt.

The court denied his petition for review without comment. In 2016, when Mr. Kuenzel appealed to the Supreme Court again, Mr. Meese argued in his own friend of the court brief, “This court should grant review and ensure that the compelling constitutional claims of a man who is very likely actually innocent are resolved on the merits.”

The court again, without comment, denied the petition, effectively ending Mr. Kuenzel’s legal options. Had he not died, he would have eventually been scheduled for execution.

William Ernest Kuenzel was born on Jan. 11, 1962 in Rockford, Ala. He was raised by his mother, Barbara Kuenzel, and his stepfather, Glenn Kuenzel, whose Army service led them to move to various military bases. Billy Kuenzel dropped out of school after the eighth grade and was hired as an auto mechanic; he later worked in a cotton mill and in construction.

He had a brief marriage that produced his only child, William Jr., who survives him along with three grandchildren, his stepbrothers, Kenneth Kuenzel and Steve Dennison, and his stepsisters, Glenda Bean and Janice Talley.

Mr. Kuenzel worked on offshore oil rigs in Louisiana, and after returning to Alabama, he was hired by a textile factory near Goodwater, a town close to Sylacauga, where he met Mr. Venn.

Following his conviction in 1988, Mr. Kuenzel did not have a lawyer until Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, asked a labor lawyer, David Dretzin, to take the case in 1993. In an article about the case on the news website in 2016, Mr. Stevenson recalled that Mr. Dretzin “was probably the first lawyer we were trying to recruit who actually touched me, and he put his hand on top of my hand and he said, ‘You know, it’s OK, I’m gonna do this.’”

Mr. Dretzin represented Mr. Kuenzel until 2006, when he died of injuries in a car crash; Mr. Kochman then took over the case.

While in prison, Mr. Kuenzel earned his GED diploma, studied for a college degree, trained as a paralegal and volunteered to help prisoners in their final days in hospice care.

Mr. Kochman said that after being initially embittered by his conviction, Mr. Kuenzel had a change of attitude when Mr. Dretzin became his lawyer.

“Dretzin cared about him and fought for him, and that turned his disposition around,” Mr. Kochman said in a phone interview. “Since I’ve known him, he’s taken everything in stride. He had a huge capacity for hope and faith and found light in darkness.”

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