Billy Kuenzel- A Story of Friendship and Injustice
June 11th, 2018
Billy Kuenzel lives his life in a 6 by 8 foot metal cell inside a maximum security prison. It’s difficult to visualize the prison in which Billy has been isolated for 30 years, filled with people judged so unfit for the outside world that they have been caged away like monsters. But Billy is no monster.
In November 1987 in Alabama, a convenience store clerk named Linda Jean Offord was murdered. Ten witnesses identified 18-year-old Harvey Venn at the scene of the crime that night. Harvey was found with blood all over his pants. When the police questioned Harvey, he did not acknowledge the blood, but simply stated that he had been at the store just before the murder took place, and had left before the crime.
Over the next few days, someone must have notified Harvey about a loophole in the legal system. If Harvey testified against an accomplice in court, he would gain a reduced sentence and the accomplice would get life in prison, or even the death penalty. If not, were he to be convicted Harvey would be looking at the same punishment. A few days later, Harvey changed his story. He now claimed that he and his roommate Billy had been out driving on the night of the murder when Billy suggested they rob a convenience store for some “easy money.” Harvey agreed, but stayed in the car while Billy went inside with his stepfather's .16 gauge shotgun. According to Harvey’s testimony, he heard gunshots, Billy came running out and the two drove off as fast as their car would take them.
Billy was brought in for questioning. He adamantly denied any involvement with the crime, maintaining that he was at home at the time of the murder. Billy was offered only 8 years in prison if he testified against Harvey– a similar plea deal to the one Harvey himself had accepted. He refused; he would not spend a minute in jail for a crime that he did not commit. A trial commenced, and Billy Kuenzel was accused with the murder of Linda Offord. The evidence against him relied almost exclusively on the testimony of Harvey Venn and one 16-year-old witness who said she had seen both Harvey and Billy in the store– a detail at odds with Harvey’s own claims. No one else had seen Billy at the scene of the crime. Long after the trial concluded, it was revealed that this witness had in actuality only seen Harvey’s car at the murder scene. But this was not revealed at the time, and on the basis of two people, an innocent man was sent to death row.
When I tell this story to my friends, they inevitably ask: “but how do you know for sure that Billy is innocent?” The truth is, it is impossible to know for sure. But in any crime it is impossible to ascertain with 100% certainty who the criminal really is. The legitimacy of our entire judicial system rests on the central tenet that all people are innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, by a jury of their own peers. On the day of Billy Kuenzel trial, not only his human rights, but one of America’s most important and righteous axioms was violated.
Since that trial in 1988, an avalanche of new evidence has come to light that further exonerates Billy and exposes the terrible injustices that landed him on death row. That evidence was hidden by prosecutors from the jury, which is a constitutional infraction. To make it even worse, Billy was represented by a state-appointed lawyer who did not conduct any significant examination into the facts of the case.
The evidence revealed the following. First, the murder weapon used that night matched the gun that Harvey owned, not Billy. Second, Harvey Venn’s girlfriend at the time said that she saw Harvey leaving for the store alone, and intoxicated with drugs and alcohol. Third, testimony from Venn himself was disclosed that contradicted his original claims during the trial. Fourth, Billy’s stepfather observed him sleeping at home at the time of the murder. Fifth, bruises were found on Harvey Venn’s face and arm that matched injuries on Linda Offord. From just this evidence alone, it is clear that one could have established beyond reasonable doubt that it was Harvey that pulled the trigger that night, instead of Billy.
My grandfather Duff Dretzin was Billy’s defense lawyer and one of the first people to believe in his innocence. My grandfather fought hard for Billy’s freedom up until the day he died. Billy and Duff had a real friendship; they enriched each other lives and cared about each other deeply. When Duff died, Billy was heartbroken. In a letter to my family ten years after Duff’s death, he wrote, “His passing has and will leave a void in my life… he shared his family with me, which today I still consider my family… he was the first person in the system I believed in… [I] have so much joy for having had him in my life for thirteen years.” When Billy was locked up, he must have felt bitter, angry, and full of resentment at the system that put him on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. But my grandfather and Billy shared kindness, family, gratitude, and love, and they developed a trust that resulted in not only hope, but a release of anger. When my grandpa was gone and did not represent Billy anymore, Billy did not fade from my life and my family’s; his presence in our hearts and minds grew even stronger.
I wrote to Billy for the first time when I was eight years old. It was frightening. His world felt alien in comparison to the comfortable Brooklyn life I knew, like something out of a fiction novel. I didn’t know what to say to him. In the letter, I wrote, “I find myself thinking about you more and more each day. I suppose it’s because I am trying to picture your situation or connect to you in some way… After all these years of false imprisonment, of wronged sentences, are you angry? How do you look at them?” He wrote me back, his words echoing deep kindness and gratitude, and suddenly he became real. He was finally a human to me, and not a fact or a fairytale. We could converse like old friends; I wasn’t so scared anymore.
In that first letter to me, he said that he was not angry. He was grateful for the people he had met throughout his time in prison -- people like my grandfather, my family, and his wife, who he met in his imprisonment. He felt like he was supported and believed, which was more valuable than gold to a man perceived as a murderer to the world. His lack of bitterness and incredible capacity for optimism and forgiveness was beyond what I thought a human under such unjust conditions could be capable of. After one letter, I could understand him. I felt the injustice of his life, his situation, and his small prison cell. I got angry; angry at the thought of what this man had to live through, and frustrated that I couldn’t help him. But at the same time I was truly moved by what Billy had said in his letter -- that he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t bitter -- so I let go of my frustration.
Billy and I exchanged a few letters in the next few months, but fell out of touch. We reconnected last summer, and have been in close, weekly exchange all year. He likes to know about my family: what we’re learning about in school; what our interests are; what we are all doing over the summer. He tells me about life in prison just as if he’s telling me about his day at school. He wrote me once that if he were offered life in prison instead of the death penalty in exchange for a confession, he would refuse it. He said, “I will leave this place with my freedom or with my dignity.”
Billy writes me a lot about what his life is like. I think he senses my curiosity. He told me that he has been there the 6th longest out of the 200 or so men on death row; that he only gets to go outside and exercise twice a week if he’s lucky; that it’s hard to make friends in prison because everybody has an execution date and he tries not to get too attached. He once wrote me about an 80 year old man who had been executed. He told me that he couldn’t help but care about these people, hardened criminals though they may be, and couldn’t help but feel sad when he lost them.
The most powerful thing he ever wrote me was this: “please believe me having all of you in my life brings me such joy I could never find the words to express it. I am so proud of all of you.”
Billy has not only taught me about the foolishness and futility of resentment, but he has given me a special friendship. I feel truly bettered by him, and though I have never met him I know we will remain close until he is no longer here. I hope I have expressed to him what his presence in my life has meant to me and my family.
Billy’s legal situation does not have a lot of hope; his appeals have been turned away -- due largely to technicalities -- and he has not been provided a day in court. He will probably be executed, but I don’t think his legal situation should determine whether or not we give him our attention. He is an incredible man with a beautiful and inspiring capacity for compassion. He is lifted up by people from the outside who care about him, and lifts them up himself. And so I urge you all to write Billy a letter if you can. You will be doing so much good with only a half hour of your time, and I promise you, he will write back. You might end up getting just as much out of it as he does. It is truly a unique experience to know someone like Billy, and I feel his presence in my life now for the incredible gift that it is. I know you will feel the same.
You can write Billy at:
William Kuenzel (Z489)
Holman Correctional Facility
Holman 3700, Unit G1 2A
Atmore, AL 36503.
And please take a minute to sign this petition in support of Billy’s innocence:
I hope Billy’s story has resonated with some of you; I know he will be happy just knowing that someone out there is thinking of him.