KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Family and attorneys of Ralph Yarl, a Kansas City teen shot after ringing the wrong doorbell this spring, believe the case is moving through Clay County court too slowly, and favors the man accused of shooting the Staley High School teen.
They lamented Clay County Prosecutor Zachary Thompson’s decision to not file what they consider to be “the appropriate” objections to Judge Louis Angles’ sealing of case materials, as well as the agreement to give the defense 90 days to look over new evidence in a Thursday afternoon news conference.
The defendant, Andrew Lester, 84, is charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action after he allegedly shot Ralph Yarl twice — in the head and the arm — after the teen mistakenly came to his door in April while trying to pick up his younger brothers from an address one street over. Yarl was 16 at the time.
Lester stood before the court Thursday, clutching a cane as the judge scheduled the next hearing for 10 a.m. Aug. 31 and 10 a.m. Sept. 1.
“It is extremely frustrating,” said Ralph Yarl’s aunt Faith Spoonmore.
“We live the possibility that this man is going to be dead before we can even get a trial. And that is the injustice.”
Spoonmore and attorneys for the Yarl family went on to say Thompson promised to “zealously prosecute” and expedite Yarl’s case, but believe his recent actions “don’t always match his words.”
Attorney Lee Merritt said they sought out a special prosecutor to take his place if Thompson agreed to recuse himself.
“Either he lacks the ability to take appropriate legal action or he’s pulling his punches… Either conclusion is unacceptable,” he said.
The Clay County Prosecutor’s Office responded to the concerns by saying their focus “remains squarely on following the law and achieving justice,” in an evening statement.
On Tuesday, Clay County Judge Louis Angles agreed to grant a protective order for Lester, citing ongoing threats and harassment toward the 84-year-old. Attorneys for Yarl and his family have since spoken out against the decision.
“Transparency is key here. Far too many times things that occur in the dark leads to the injustice then proliferated in our communities, and we don’t want that to happen here,” said Ben Crump, another attorney for Yarl and his family.
On April 13, Yarl approached a home in the 1100 block of Northeast 115th Street, where he thought he was picking up his twin brothers from a friend’s house. Yarl had intended to go to a home one street over, on Northeast 115th Terrace.
He later told police he was shot immediately after Lester opened the door, and he overheard Lester say: “Don’t come around here.”
During his interview with police, Lester, who is white, accused Yarl of pulling his door handle — an account that is disputed by Yarl and his family — and said he shot him because he was “scared to death” of the tall, Black stranger at his door.
The shooting renewed national conversations about racism, and racial bias, explicit and implicit, and gun rights in the U.S.
“The whole world is watching Kansas City to see if there’s going to be accountability and justice for this teenage kid who merely rang a doorbell,” Crump said.
As a result of the order, all discovery in the case will be sealed and will not be accessible to the public, including the media. The public will still be allowed in the courtroom as the case proceeds.
“We want the same zealous prosecution had it been a young white kid who rang the doorbell of an older Black man and the Black man shot him,” said Crump, who called the decision “alarming.”
John Picerno, a local criminal defense attorney not associated with the Lester case, said protection orders like this aren’t uncommon, though they’re more often filed by prosecutors than defense attorneys. But the reasoning is usually the same: to protect the safety and identity of those in the case, including the witnesses, and to keep a jury pool from being tainted.
Picerno said typically this means any evidence, including police reports, lab reports, ballistic reports, eyewitness accounts, hospital records, 911 recordings, etc, will only be available to the judge and attorneys.
Theoretically, if the case goes to trial and Lester is convicted, the protection order would end and the records would be unsealed, he said.
Lee Merritt, an attorney for Yarl and his family, called the judge’s decision to seal the case “problematic,” adding that the Clay County prosecutor failed to make the proper objections on behalf of the family to the request to seal. Since there is no video evidence emotionally compelling enough to contaminate the jury, he said, only Lester benefits from sealing court records.
“It’s not the prosecutor’s job to protect the interests of Mr. Lester. But instead he should be considering the interests of Ralph Yarl and his family.”
Merritt said Thompson’s lack of objection to the seal has cost the family peace of mind and access to equal justice.
“The threats and harassment demonstrate Defendant’s life and physical safety are in jeopardy,” the judge wrote.
Merritt said Lester’s health is also a concern of theirs; they believe Yarl should have the opportunity to face his assailant in court.
“If he is suffering, if Mr. Lester is feeling under the weather or if he is feeling harassed, it’s because he shot a 16-year-old child in the face ….. “ Merritt said.
In court in late May, Salmon had said that Lester was having health problems, and had lost about 40 pounds since he was charged in the shooting.
Spoonmore last week in response said Yarl also lost weight while in the hospital. At one point he weighed only 140 pounds.
“Who are you trying to paint as a victim?” she asked then. “Who are you trying to get sympathy for, and why?”
Salmon has said Lester was forced to move three times, that his home of 40 years has been “egged” and spray-painted and that his wife was also forced to move nursing homes out of safety concerns.
The judge also included in his reasoning a number of text messages he said Lester received on his personal cell phone after the shooting, when his number was posted on a public platform. Lester has been called a “murderer” over text, as well as a “racist white man” who “should burn in hell,” according to court records. Someone also threatened to shoot up Lester’s home, and he received multiple messages from people saying they hope he dies.
Angles in court records noted the extensive local, national and international attention the case has garnered, including on NPR, FOX News, the BBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The judge also noted an interview on Inside Edition with Lester’s ex-wife, who alleges he abused her more than 50 years ago when they were married, and a CNN interview with Lester’s grandson, who said Lester has “racist tendencies.”
That grandson in an interview with The Kansas City Star said his grandfather had been influenced by more extreme conservative viewpoints and “a 24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia.” Two other relatives said they didn’t believe Lester was a racist and thought he likely was scared when he shot Yarl.
Lester’s attorney Stephen Salmon previously pointed out that while prosecutors did not charge Lester with a crime alleging racial motivation in the shooting of Yarl, there was still mass speculation around his motivations and he had been cast in a negative and racist light, which could later harm his right to an impartial jury and a fair trial, a constitutional right.
“The overwhelming majority of the reporting continues to assert that the alleged actions of (Lester) were racially motivated, with if believed, virtually eliminates the defense available to (Lester) related to the reasonableness of his actions,” Angles wrote in the ruling.
He also noted politicians, including President Joe Biden, and a number of the celebrities have called for justice for Ralph, including Gwenyth Paltrow, Halle Berry, Chrissy Teigen, Kim Kardashian and Viola Davis.
Angles also drew attention to a comment made by Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who said: “If Stand Your Ground really lets somebody shoot somebody that rings a doorbell, that puts the life of every postal worker, every campaigner, every Amazon delivery person at risk in this country.”
“These statements implicitly communicate to the public that the alleged actions of the Defendant are indefensible,” Angles wrote.
Paul Yarl, the teen’s father, stood on the steps of the Clay County courthouse Thursday afternoon surrounded by over a dozen members of the Liberian Community Organization of Kansas-Missouri.
He hoped to hear the judge’s expectations for the rest of the case, but the 1:30 p.m. hearing lasted 10 minutes and ended with Andrew Lester’s lawyers being granted another 90 days to review new evidence.
“I think the prosecutor should do better,” he said.
“All the trips I have to make out of town. I live in Indianapolis. So after coming back home for the delays and delays and delays…. This is not fair to me.”
Reverend Dr. Nicholas Nicol, who arrived among a group wearing “Ringing the doorbell is not a crime” shirts, said Liberian community members are similarly frustrated and seeking justice for Ralph Yarl.
“As a pastor of the church I’m a shepherd… And one of my sheep have been affected by this… We stand against it and we want to see justice done with our own ears and our own eyes,” he said.
Upon seeing the crowd of people supporting Yarl, one lawyer not associated with the case left the Clay County courtroom lifting his fist into the air in solidarity.
On Thursday, the judge scheduled the preliminary hearing for 10 a.m. on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 at the Clay County Courthouse after Lester’s attorney asked for more time to review evidence.
“Nothing about this case has been handled normally,” Merritt said Thursday.
The night of the shooting, Lester was taken into custody and released. This led to community-wide outrage as questions were asked about why it took days for Lester to be charged, and then several more hours for him to be arrested.
Now, Merritt said, it’s taking too long for him to get to a preliminary hearing.
He said it’s normal for defense attorneys to ask for more time, but he said to get three months was too much, especially with an older defendant. Clay County Prosecutor Zachary Thompson didn’t try to argue against this, he said.
Early in the case, the family requested a special prosecutor come in, but Thompson declined to voluntarily recuse himself from the case, Merritt said.
“Mr. Thompson doesn’t enjoy our full confidence because he has not done the same for Ralph,” Merritt said, later adding: “He’s bent over backwards” but “his actions don’t always match his words,”
As part of a Thursday evening statement, Thompson’s office said their “hearts continue to go out to all impacted by this case.”
“The focus of our office remains squarely on following the law and achieving justice. Our community deserves no less.”
Ralph and his family are fighting for him to have the “most normal senior year he can have,” Nagbe said, adding that the longer the case stretches on, the longer it will take to get some semblance of normalcy.
“We’re proud of him because he does want to get better. He does want to move forward from this and live a full life,” she said.
They had a house full of family over the weekend as they participated in a Memorial Day race to raise awareness around traumatic brain injuries. While Ralph could walk the race, he still isn’t allowed to jump on trampolines, throw a football or play his instrument for more than a few minutes, his aunt said.
He’s doing remarkably well for having been shot in the head, Spoonmore said, but he still suffers headaches every day, and a judge didn’t get to hear about that, she noted.