CLAYTON — Kelli Hall, whose nude body was found in a frozen Maryland Heights field in 1989, has been dead almost twice as long as she was alive.
Jeffrey Ferguson, the man convicted of strangling the 17-year-old with her red scarf, was executed in 2014.
And Kenneth Ousley, who pleaded guilty in Hall’s death, is set to be paroled from his 30-year sentence in February 2023. The seemingly concluded criminal case could find new life in a St. Louis County courtroom, though, if a judge grants Ousley’s request for previously unavailable DNA testing of hairs that linked him to the crime scene.
Scott Thompson, Ousley’s public defender, says he believes testing the hairs for DNA could show Ousley’s innocence.
“If there’s evidence out there that demonstrates his innocence, one day (in prison) is really too much to serve,” Thompson said.
But there’s one major hurdle to testing the hairs: All of the samples may be lost.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell said in a filed response that evidence logs indicate the specimens were last known to have been with a DNA analyst in 2001 when she was hired to conduct testing in Ferguson’s appeal.
No records exist of the samples’ returning to St. Louis County, the filing says. Jami Harman, the analyst who had them, now lives in Utah and believes she returned them to St. Louis County years ago. She told county prosecutors she’d have to be hired in Ousley’s case before searching dozens of compact discs that store records of DNA analyses from 2001 and 2002.
“Justice demands we permit the DNA testing of the evidence, if the evidence still exists,” Bell’s office said in the filing.
His office has asked a judge to give Ousley until at least February to hire Harman so that she can search for the DNA records.
Hall was abducted about 11 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1989, from a St. Charles service station where she worked. Authorities said that Ferguson and Ousley drove her to the field in Maryland Heights and sexually assaulted her and that Ferguson strangled Hall and stole her rings, which he later tried to sell.
Her clothes were found the next day. Her body was found 13 days later. Ousley told police he picked up Ferguson in St. Charles that night and drove him home but denied participating in Hall’s murder.
In 2015, a year after the 59-year-old Ferguson was executed, the FBI, Justice Department, Innocence Project and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers announced that the FBI overstated the certainty of hair comparisons in 268 trials before 2000. In Ousley’s and Ferguson’s cases, the Justice Department concluded that an FBI analyst made statements “that exceeded the limits of science” in testifying that the hair belonged to one person “to the exclusion of all others.”
Evidence against Ferguson was stronger: DNA of a blood sample from Ferguson matched semen recovered from Hall’s coat, and a witness put Ferguson within 100 yards of where Hall was abducted about the time she vanished.
A St. Louis County jury convicted Ferguson in 1992 and recommended the death penalty, but the case was reversed on appeal because of faulty jury instructions. A new jury came to the same conclusions in 1994.
Tom Dittmeier, the prosecutor who handled Ferguson’s two murder trials, told the Post-Dispatch in 2015 that the flawed hair analysis would have made no difference in Ferguson’s conviction.
At Ferguson’s trials, the FBI analyst said a head hair found on Ousley’s shoe was Hall’s and that a pubic hair found on Hall’s sock belonged to Ousley.
Ousley, 55, formerly of Ellisville, has denied involvement in Hall’s death, saying he only helped dump her body. He said in his court filing that he would not have pleaded guilty in 1993 if he’d known he would be a victim of the FBI analyst’s “overreaching.”
Thompson, Ousley’s lawyer, told the Post-Dispatch that obtaining DNA on the hair samples now could provide a compelling challenge to the FBI analyst’s tainted testimony, although too late for Ferguson.
“It’s sad that they had to go to these lengths to get a conviction against Mr. Ferguson,” Thompson said. “But in our case, it’s the DNA results that we want to show to the court.”
Ferguson’s father, Renyold Ferguson, was a Post-Dispatch photographer who retired in 1995.
Hall’s parents, Jim Hall, 74, of Grafton, and Susan King, 73, of Florissant, say their daughter’s death still feels like yesterday. They used to attend all of Ousley’s parole board hearings but skipped the most recent one because of illness and the painful memories they bring back. Pursuing DNA testing now, King said, seems unnecessary when Ousley gets closer to being released.
“Just about time you think you’ve got everything under control, something happens and it stirs the pot all over again,” King said.
Hall said he has no objection to testing the hair samples if they can be found. He now wishes Ferguson hadn’t been executed, and he has forgiven Ferguson and Ousley alike.
“As a Christian, I had to eventually,” he said. Still, he added of Ousley, “I have nothing to say to him. He constantly denied it and that’s why he stayed in prison for so long. He showed no compassion — no nothing.”