Cliff Middleton speaks with a preacher's zeal and intensity. When he isn't locked in eye contact with you, trying to convince you of his cause, his gaze wanders over your shoulder, as if looking for an invisible flock. He discusses — at length — justice, truth and his father.
Those subjects intersect in Blue Springs, in the home of Cliff's father and stepmother. Truth and justice notwithstanding, two facts about what happened there on February 12, 1990, are not in dispute: Ken and Kathy Middleton were the only two people in their Blue Springs house, and a bullet that discharged from Ken's .357-caliber Magnum entered the left side of Kathy's face, ending the 46-year-old woman's life on the couple's dining-room floor.
Kathy had been Cliff's stepmother since he was 5 years old. Although he lived with his biological mother most of the year, Cliff relished spending summers with his father and his father's wife, often exploring the land that the couple owned in rural Arkansas. Cliff was 20 when Kathy died, and his father was given a prison sentence of life plus 200 years for first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Ken says Kathy's death was a tragic accident, not a homicide. Since 1991, Cliff has spent part of every day working to prove that his father didn't kill the woman Cliff thought of as a second mom.
Ken calls his son from prison five times a day to talk strategy. Even when Cliff is exhausted from a day of hauling cars to dealerships — a trade he followed his dad into — he picks up the phone. Cliff works on his website about Ken, meets with Ken's lawyers, calls media outlets and meets with community activists, never giving himself a day off — not for holidays, not for his wedding, not for the births of his three children.
After 20 years of court fights, revelations about the investigation, and nonstop campaigning on his father's behalf, Cliff still doesn't fully understand the events leading to Kathy's death, and neither do authorities. Now, though, Ken is preparing a final appeal motion to reopen his case and, he hopes, to earn a new trial. More than ever, he is leaning on Cliff, the one advocate he has had since his journey through the justice system began.
For Patrick Peters, the assistant Jackson County prosecutor assigned to the Middleton case, the death of Kathy Middleton was just another open-and-shut wife killing. It was nothing new to the man known in the courthouse as Dr. Death because of the half-dozen capital-punishment convictions on his résumé.
"A first-year law student could have gone in there and got a conviction," Peters says, recalling the case.
The way Peters presented it to a jury: Ken called Kathy at work and told her that he was feeling ill, and she agreed to return home to care for him. When she arrived, Ken held his wife of 16 years against their dining-room wall, put his Smith & Wesson revolver about 8 inches from her face and executed her. When she was dead, he called 911 and shrieked to the operator that his wife had been shot. Then he ran to greet police when they arrived at the scene. Upon being told by EMTs that Kathy was dead, Ken bolted for the bathroom, pretended to wretch and began washing his hands, hoping to rid them of gunpowder residue. Riding in an ambulance to the hospital, paramedics reported that Ken feigned unconsciousness.
When it was time to tell authorities how Kathy ended up dead in their home, Ken's story came unglued.