LAWRENCE — After 16 years behind bars for a murder his brother repeatedly confessed to committing, Floyd Bledsoe is a free man. A Jefferson County judge this month vacated the convictions of the KU Law Project for Innocence client based on new DNA evidence and a suicide note from his brother.
Ten KU Law students worked on Floyd’s case over the past eight years, and several were present on Dec. 8 to celebrate the monumental victory.
“It was one of the most emotional days of my life,” said Kaiti Smith, L’13, now a public defender in Kentucky. “Floyd turned around and gave me a big hug, and we both just started bawling.”
Floyd was convicted in 2000 of first-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated indecent liberties in the shooting death of his 14-year-old sister-in-law, Camille Arfmann. Her body was found under a pile of trash with four gunshot wounds in November 1999 just north of Oskaloosa, Kansas. Floyd’s brother, Tom, initially confessed to the brutal rape and murder but later recanted and testified against his brother, telling jurors that Floyd had threatened to disclose unsavory information about his past if he didn’t take the fall.
“During the original investigation, all evidence linked Tom to the crime,” said Alice Craig, supervising attorney with the Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies. “Tom was unaccounted for when Camille disappeared. The gun he kept in his truck was the murder weapon. He confessed to police and his minister, and he led police to the body. The investigation turned when Tom changed his story and implicated Floyd. The state’s case hinged entirely on Tom’s testimony.”
Despite a verified alibi and a lack of physical evidence connecting Floyd to the crime, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. KU Law’s Project for Innocence began representing Floyd in 2007, after the Kansas Supreme Court upheld his convictions.
A new theory
By the time Kaiti Smith started the Project for Innocence as a second-year law student in 2011, federal litigation had failed to obtain relief for Floyd and the Project’s focus had turned to DNA testing. Project supervisors assigned Floyd’s case to Smith hoping her undergraduate degree in forensic science would allow her to help evaluate the evidence to be tested and the type of testing to be used. Because the victim’s body was found in the trash dump used by Tom and his parents, isolating DNA to establish Floyd’s innocence would be challenging.
“I knew a lot about DNA, so I thought I could help,” Smith said. “I continued in the Project my 3L year and worked exclusively on Floyd’s case. I sifted through boxes and boxes of evidence and paperwork.”
Then early one morning, after a year and a half of poring over transcripts and replaying scenarios in her mind, it hit her: Maybe Floyd’s father helped cover up the murder. Testimony described how Arfmann had been dragged by her feet postmortem. What if genetic material on her socks or pants revealed that someone other than Floyd had helped dispose of her body?
“I remember emailing Jean and asking if we could meet. I told her, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy,’” Smith recalled. On the contrary, Project Director Jean Phillips found Smith’s theory plausible. “We submitted a motion in 2012 to allow us to do DNA testing.”
When Smith graduated in 2013, the ball was rolling. Slowly.
It would take two more years and two more students — Peter Conley, L’14, and Emily Barclay, L’15 — to write motions, make phone calls, and shepherd evidence from storage locations in Kansas to the California lab that conducted the tests.
All the while, Floyd Bledsoe — who never wavered in his claim of innocence and never lost hope that his name would be cleared — waited in prison.
“He would call at least once a week, sometimes more, to get updates,” Conley said. “You don’t want to break his heart. But he was always hopeful; his faith is really strong. I wanted to be as confident as he was that DNA testing would overturn his conviction, but I wasn’t always certain that he would be released.”
Floyd’s case got a boost in 2014 when the Project for Innocence formed a partnership with the Midwest Innocence Project, a member of the national Innocence Network. The collaboration provided the financial resources necessary to continue moving forward with expensive DNA testing.
Preliminary results leaned in Floyd’s favor, and Emily Barclay visited the Lansing Correctional Facility with Alice Craig last spring to share the news.
“Everyone was incredibly excited but really cautious,” said Barclay, now a Johnson County public defender. “Nobody wanted to say this is, for sure, going to seal the deal.”
As it turned out, a surprising development would end up corroborating the DNA results so strongly that Jefferson County Attorney Jason Belveal agreed Floyd’s conviction should be vacated. Judge Gary Nafziger concurred.
Not only did final test results (received in September 2015) show the Bledsoes’ father’s DNA on Arfmann’s socks, but it also revealed semen consistent with Tom’s DNA on the vaginal swab taken from Arfmann’s body. Tom, now certain to come under investigation, committed suicide in November in the parking lot of a Bonner Springs Walmart.
In suicide notes, Tom confessed to raping and killing Arfmann and claimed that then-Jefferson County Attorney Jim Vanderbilt urged him to pin the crime on his brother. He also drew a diagram of the murder scene and led detectives to an empty shell casing that remained at the scene.
Further testimony presented at the Dec. 8 hearing on the new evidence revealed that the initial analysis of Arfmann’s rape kit was inconclusive and that Tom, who was originally believed to have passed a polygraph test, had actually failed.
Even without the DNA and polygraphs, no physical evidence ever tied Floyd to Arfmann’s murder. For the past eight years, Jean Phillips has used Floyd’s case in the Project for Innocence class as a clear example of injustice.
“This case has several hallmarks of a classic wrongful conviction, including prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of trial counsel and an inadequate investigation,” Phillips said. “Studying Floyd’s case helps students understand what issues to investigate while working on their own cases in the Project and later as practicing attorneys.”
Unparalleled student experience
Floyd Bledsoe walked into the Jefferson County Courthouse on Dec. 8 in a prison uniform and shackles. Three hours later, he left in jeans and a flannel shirt — free for the first time in over 16 years.
“It’s all just barely sinking in,” he said outside the courthouse. “I mean, it’s been a long time. I just want to take everything slowly and take it all in.”
The moment the judge announced Floyd’s release proved surreal for Peter Conley, who worked on the case for a year during law school and now serves alongside Barclay as a public defender in Johnson County.
“He never should have been found guilty the first time, so you can’t be sure how things are going to play out,” he said. “It was a happy moment, although it was disappointing there was not an apology, a ‘Sorry you went through this. The system failed you.’”
Through their advocacy on behalf of Floyd Bledsoe, Conley and other KU Law students learned so much about client interaction, criminal and appellate procedure, and the way the justice system works – and sometimes doesn’t work.
“The Project for Innocence is the best hands-on experience you can get in law school,” Kaiti Smith said. “Working on Floyd’s case has definitely helped me in my current job. I hope that I have the opportunity to influence another big case someday, but you know what? I would be happy with this as my one big, good deed in life.”