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Clay County prosecutor receives death threats, denies request for special prosecutor in Lester case

Clay County prosecutor Zachary Thompson
Posted at 6:05 PM, Jun 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-02 17:02:51-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The family of Ralph Yarl, the teenager who was shot twice after ringing the wrong doorbell at a Clay County house last month, asked Clay County Prosecuting Attorney Zachary Thompson to step aside and allow a special prosecutor to handle the prosecution of the man charged in the case.

Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Yarl family, made the request public Thursday during a press conference after Andrew Lester, the 84-year-old man who admitted to shooting Yarl twice on April 13, appeared in Clay County Circuit Court.

“So far, he has not instilled us with a great deal of confidence in his office or his ability,” Merrit said in explaining why the Yarl family sought a special prosecutor.

Merritt said they asked Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker to take over Lester’s prosecution. He has been charged with first-degree assault and armed criminal action for shooting Yarl.

Merrit said the Yarl family believes Baker and her office “would be more prepared to handle such a high-profile case,” adding that “to his credit” Thompson reached out to Baker for a conversation.

Thompson’s office confirmed that he talked with Baker, but denied that it was related to the special-prosecutor request.

“Mr. Thompson regularly meets and communicates with various elected officials in the region,” Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Alexander Higginbotham, who serves as public information officer for the prosecutor’s office, said in an email to KSHB 41. “His most recent conversations with Ms. Peters Baker have concerned how to address death threats he has received, particularly as they relate to his wife and children.”

Thompson's office said in an email Friday morning that it would not comment on the specifics of the alleged threats, but offered a statement:

I chose to become the prosecutor and understood the risks that come with that responsibility. Victims of crime have not chosen their role. My focus, and the focus of our community, should be firmly on seeking justice for those victims. My message to anyone who seeks to influence the decisions of this office through threats to me or my family is that they will not succeed.
Zachary Thompson, Clay County Prosecuting Attorney

The Clay County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Friday that it received a report of a threat against Thompson on April 17, the day his office filed charges against Lester.

The threat was made via voicemail, but no other information was available as the investigation is ongoing.

Lester admitted to police that he shot Yarl, who was a 16-year-old Staley High School junior at the time of the incident, after he mistakenly rang the doorbell at the wrong house, attempting to pick up his younger siblings from a babysitter.

Yarl, who is Black, went to Lester’s house in the 1100 block of Northeast 115th Street shortly before 10 p.m. His siblings were at a house in the 1100 block of Northeast 115th Terrace.

Lester, who is white, answered the door after Yarl rang it then shot him in the head through a locked glass storm door, according to court records.

Lester shot Yarl again after he fell to the ground and before the boy ran to safety in the street.

Four days after the shooting, Thompson’s office charged Lester on April 17 with first-degree assault and armed criminal action.

Lester surrendered and bonded out of jail April 18 and pleaded not guilty at an April 19 arraignment hearing.

Attorneys for the Yarl family questioned Thompson’s handling of the case and openly questioned his fitness to prosecute Lester.

"We're here to make sure that we raise the concern publicly, that our clients are raising to us privately about, why are they sealing records?" Merritt’s co-counsel, Ben Crump, said. "Transparency is key here. Far too many times, things that occur in the dark leads to the injustice being proliferated in our communities. We don’t want that to happen here. The whole world is watching Kansas City to see if there is going to be accountability and justice for this teenage kid who merely rang the doorbell."

The Yarl family’s attorneys do not believe Thompson handled the case in an “aggressive, serious manner that it deserved” until national pressure mounted.

They also took exception to Thompson allowing the case to be sealed without sufficient objection.

“His actions don’t always match his words,” Yarl family attorney Lee Merritt said. “So, either he lacks the ability to take appropriate legal action or he’s pulling his punches. Either conclusion is unacceptable to (Yarl’s) family.”

Thompson, who was elected to his first term in August 2022 and assumed office on Jan. 1, 2023, declined the Yarl family’s request for a special prosecutor.

“Mr. Thompson is adamant about handling this case himself,” Merritt said. “We have to set our reluctance aside and simply abide by the rules of the jurisdiction, which says this is his case unless he chooses to step aside, and trust that he will put forth the necessary effort in order to see it through to a successful conviction.”

Despite that reluctance, Merritt said he believes Lester’s prosecution is “an easy case” and that Thompson “will face some challenges but should be able to successfully obtain a conviction.”

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Annual homicide details and data for the Kansas City area are available through the KSHB 41 News Homicide Tracker, which was launched in 2015. Read the KSHB 41 News Mug Shot Policy.