More than 29 years after Lizabeth Wilson was abducted and murdered on her way home from the Prairie Village Municipal Pool, a Johnson County jury found John Henry Horton guilty. But that was just the beginning of a court saga that continues to this day.
The five-day jury trial in September 2004 that ended with the conviction included the testimony of a woman who said Horton had assaulted her on a golf course not long before Lizabeth disappeared. In February 2007, the Kansas Supreme Court said her testimony should not have been allowed and ordered Horton released.
Prairie Village police and detective Kyle Shipps, who had led the cold case investigation that put Horton in prison, had to start again. A new district attorney was willing to retry the case and police were waiting at the prison door to arrest Horton again as he walked out.
By 2007, Horton had spent a few years in jail. A letter from an inmate to the district attorney said Horton had admitted the murder and described details not widely known. The legwork of interviewing cellmates netted detectives the testimony of two inmates. That was enough to also get the woman’s story of assault back in court.
Detectives had always believed Horton accidentally overdosed Lizabeth on chloroform as he was trying to molest her. That matched what the inmates testified to during the second trial. Again, Horton was found guilty, this time in February 2008. But an unexpected twist would be the root of a new appeal.
After closing arguments, the defense asked the judge to stop jury deliberations because new evidence had been uncovered from prison phone calls that they claimed cast doubt on testimony of one of the inmates. The judge refused. The Supreme Court sent it back for the judge to reconsider and the district judge stood by his ruling.
Last Thursday, Steve Howe, the fourth Johnson County District Attorney involved with the Lizabeth Wilson case, argued before the Kansas Supreme Court against Horton’s appeal. And again, the court was asked by the defense to reverse Horton’s conviction.
The justices asked pointed questions of Horton’s attorney, suggesting to her that the Johnson County judge had weighed his decision carefully and that the new evidence was not compelling. It is not clear how long a decision will take. Howe said re-opening a case after jury deliberations had started would open a “Pandora’s Box” that would have an impact on justice.
If Horton wins the appeal, it will be difficult for police. The evidence will stand, Prairie Village Police Chief Wes Jordan said, but getting testimony could be difficult. Nearly 40 years have passed and witnesses have aged. Three police officers who were involved are now deceased. But, whatever happens, police say there is some satisfaction that Horton has been in jail since 2003.
“I don’t know what would happen if it got reversed again,” Shipps said. “We’ll keep doing everything we can to stay with it.” One thing Shipps does know for sure is what will happen if Horton ever comes up for parole: “I guarantee I will be at the parole hearing with the family.”