Splitting hairs: The case of Kenneth Ousley and the murder of Kelli Hall
ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - “It’s been a very long 25 years waiting for this execution,” Jim Hall said in 2014, choking back tears after watching Jeffrey Ferguson be executed for murdering his daughter, Kelli. “My family and I have been devastated for years over this. She was 17 years old. She had her whole life in front of her.”
A father’s anger and pain. Indescribable in words. Understandable to all.
Fifth Street in St. Charles, just off interstate 70. Two gas stations - Mobil and Shell - sit across the street from each other. As the clock struck 11 p.m. on a cold Thursday night in February 1989, the hands of horror and fate awaited.
Three hours earlier at the home of Melvin Hedrick, Jeffrey Ferguson arrived, looking to sell a gun. Hedrick wasn’t interested, but suggested Ferguson might have luck at a local bar. The two of them then headed to Brother’s Bar, where they failed to sell the gun. Hedrick headed home. Ferguson then called another friend, Kenneth Ousley, to pick him up down the street at the Shell station. Ousley arrived driving a brown and white Chevy Blazer. Ferguson arrived, still with his gun. It was 10:55 p.m.
Across the street at the Mobil station, 17-year-old Kelli Hall was minutes away from getting off work. Her last task was to check and record the fuel levels in the four tanks at the front of the station. A witness reported seeing a brown and white Chevy Blazer cross the street, pull into the Mobil station and park. He reported seeing a white male standing next to Hall, with one hand in his pocket. Seconds later, Hall entered the back seat of the Blazer.
At the same time, Hall’s boyfriend was waiting for her in his car, parked behind the station. At 11:30 p.m., wondering where she was, he went inside looking for her. He found her purse, then called her house. When he found out she wasn’t there, he called the police.
The long night of horror began for the Hall family.
Early the next morning, a Chesterfield city worker spotted a handful of items alongside Creve Coeur Mill Road. Tennis shoes. Underclothes. A shirt. A coat. And a blue sweater with a Mobil insignia. In the pocket of the coat were notations about the fuel pump levels of two of the underground tanks.
As the disappearance of Kelli Hall was plastered on front pages and television screens, Hedrick started wondering if Ferguson was involved. On Monday morning, he reached out to a friend who was a former FBI agent. A couple of weeks later, Hall’s body was found on a farm in Maryland Heights, naked except for her socks. That day, Hedrick met Ferguson in a bar. He was wearing a wire, and the FBI was waiting outside.
Ferguson knew there was a media frenzy. He told Hedrick “they’re making a big thing out of this thing and it’s just another [expletive] who lost it.” Later that night, Ferguson was arrested and charged with the murder of Kelli Hall.
Forensic scientists examined DNA, blood, fiber and hair samples. Ferguson was a match. He plead not guilty, and claimed he was asleep at the time of the murder. A St. Louis County jury wasn’t buying it, and convicted him in 1992, but the case was reversed on appeal because of a faulty jury instruction. A second trial in 1994 came to the same conclusion. Ferguson would go to death row, and as Jim Hall watched, be executed in 2014.
And that brings us to the strange case of Kenneth Ousley, the man who picked Ferguson up in the Chevy Blazer.
Yes, Ousley told the police, he was there that night. And yes, he saw Ferguson strangle and kill Hall. But no, Ousley insisted, he wasn’t involved. He only assisted in disposing the body, fearful of Ferguson.
Unlike Ferguson, there was no trace of Ousley’s DNA on Hall’s body or clothing. No DNA match of any kind. The only physical evidence linking him the scene was hair analysis. There was one blonde strand on his shoe. And there was pubic hair linked to Ousley on Hall’s sock. The state had expert witness linking both hairs to Ousley. Had his case gone to trial, with Ousley’s admission to being at the murder scene, and the two hairs, he faced the possibility of the death penalty. Ousley would accept a plea deal in 1993 to second degree murder, and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years. He is scheduled for full parole after serving 30 years, in 2023. He was sent to the South Central Correctional Center in Licking, Missouri.
The years rolled on, and beginning in 2008, Ousley was up for parole hearings. And each time that he was, Jim Hall would make the four hour round trip to argue against his release. No one could blame the father for the anger and pain that would never leave. Ousley was never successful before the parole board. He settled into prison life, and even got married behind bars.
And then came the hairs.
Michael Malone was a forensic expert specializing in hair and fiber analysis. He retired from the FBI in 1999. Before he did, Malone provided expert testimony in many criminal court cases around the country. Among them, the Kelli Hall case.
The problem is, Malone and the FBI’s expertise is now under fire.
So much so, that the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers began a review of FBI analysts’ testimony and reports on hair comparisons. The group found that analysts, including Malone, had provided erroneous testimony or reports in more than 90 percent of cases it had studied. The group called much of Malone’s findings to be “problematic,” and having “no scientific basis.” Regarding Malone’s testimony in the Kelli Hall case, the Justice Department called it “exceeding the limits of justice.”
And it’s not just Malone. The FBI has acknowledged that from the mid 1970′s until 2000, nearly every examiner in the FBI’s elite microscopic hair comparison unit gave flawed testimony in trials. And it’s not as if forensic hair analysis wasn’t already in question for criminal cases at that time. In 1974, researchers concluded that hair comparisons were so subjective that different experts could reach different conclusions about the same hair. In fact, they said, the same examiner could reach a different conclusion about the same hair, at different times.
And in 1984, the FBI said hair samples could no longer be used as a positive match for identification, and in 1996 the Department of Justice stopped declaring matches based on visual comparison.
In the middle of this stood Michael Malone and the hair samples.
Ferguson’s attorneys filed an appeal in his case, saying the FBI was aware of allegations concerning Malone years before Ferguson’s trial. In 2013, with death row looming, they presented the FBI results to then St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch. “We ask that you determine the actions your office should take in light of this error,” the letter says.
But questionable hair samples would not save Ferguson, with the state holding a mountain of evidence. But Ousley’s case, with no other physical evidence beyond two hairs?
And that brings us to today.
Kenneth Ousley has petitioned the courts to re-evaluate the forensic evidence, specifically those two hairs. But alas, in this story, things are never quite as they seem.
Where are the hairs? They are missing from the county crime lab. To make a long story short, the county had three hair samples for the Ferguson and Ousley cases. During his appeal process, Ferguson’s attorneys hired a local lab to study the hairs. They checked out the samples in 2001. They were never returned. Now, 20 years later, Ousley has filed his motion, and nobody knows where the hairs are. The lab reports they only keep records for seven years. The analyst who studied the hairs 20 years ago now lives in Utah, and cannot travel due to the pandemic. She has no recollection of where the hairs might be. Such forensic evidence in a criminal case would be well marked in a large box, unlikely to be lost or misplaced. But it has been.
Ousley’s motion to locate the forensic evidence has a February 1 deadline. And now, in the case of the missing hairs, the convicted criminal has found an unusual partner: St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, who has joined the motion to extend the deadline on Ousley’s behalf, which would entail hiring the lab analyst again to search through 20 years of her records. Bell has issued the following statement.
“A plea bargain that is obtained on the basis of false testimony is inherently suspect and deserves reexamination, especially when that false testimony is offered by a member of law enforcement. In this case, evidence other than this dubious testimony links Kenneth Ousley to the crime, and that information is not insignificant. But evidence must be balanced on scales that are true, not scales that are weighted down with false evidence. In order to determine whether Ousley’s plea was validly obtained, we must do our best to uncover the truth behind that evidence. This motion was filed in an effort to uncover the truth.”
A man’s fate lost over time. And another man’s mind would change because of it.
As Jeffrey Ferguson sat for his final meal before his execution, Jim Hall waited with his wife Susan, their son Stephen, and his wife Melissa. On the other side of the room was Ferguson’s family, including his daughters. After barbecue ribs, french fries and apple pie, Ferguson entered the chamber. He had promised his family he would bring a happy, not scared face to the room. He turned, looked at them, and made funny faces. They tried to smile back.
To Hall’s family, Ferguson wrote his final words.
“I’m sorry to have to be the cause that brings you all into this dark business of execution. I pray for the victim’s family to have peace in their hearts one day and lose the anger, hate and need for revenge that has driven them.”
The execution was carried out at 12:01 a.m. Ferguson was pronounced dead ten minutes later.
For the Hall family, it was over. Nothing would bring Kelli back. They had heard stories about how Ferguson was a model prisoner, that he had changed in the 25 years since the murder. It mattered little to Jim Hall.
The long days of mourning went by. After Kelli’s death, Stephen and Marissa Hall welcomed a baby girl to their family. They named her Kelli. And one night at the Hall house, the family gathered to watch a documentary called “Potosi: God in Death Row.” That’s where Ferguson waited to die, and he appeared in the program like a voice from the grave. Jim Hall, a man of deep faith, could not take his eyes from the screen. When the program ended, he sat down and wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. It read:
“Ferguson conveyed such genuine remorse for the pain he caused both our family and his because of his horrible actions that we were able to forgive him then and there. We have since come to deeply regret his execution and appeal to Gov. Jay Nixon, during his final days in office, to commute to life without parole the death sentences of the remaining 25 men awaiting an execution date. Sadly, one can only imagine. But I’m convinced significant healing would have occurred for us all if our family had engaged in a frank conversation with him at the prison. I wish I had had the chance -- consistent with my Christian beliefs -- to have told him in person that I forgave him for what he did to our innocent and precious daughter.”
And he has also forgiven Ousley. To be a Christian, as Jim Hall discovered, is to forgive the utterly unforgiveable.
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