"48 Hours" probes Missouri murder mystery

A teenage girl is discovered in her car, brutally murdered; Was she running for her life?

Valerie Eubanks is Mischelle Lawless' little sister.

"We wanna know who did it, of course. We just would really like to know why? Was there a purpose behind it? she asked. "Was it just a fluke? Was she at the wrong place at the wrong time? Did she walk up on something?"

"You just want to deny it. You don't want it to be true," said their mother, Esther Lawless.

Of her sister's last hours, Eubanks said, "She was with some of her friends from Sikeston that she hung out with all the time. Drivin' around in Sikeston. They would drive up and down Main Street and park in Malco Parking lot or whatever and hang out. It seemed to be a very typical Saturday night."

Family members said Mischelle didn't express any concerns or fears in the days before her death.

"Do you think that Mischelle would have stopped for a stranger on the street?" Moriarty asked.

"No," Eubanks said. Her mother added, "We always kinda felt that someone she knew was involved. That's what made her pull over and stop."

Which is what made the arrest of Joshua Kezer so puzzling; there's no mention of him anywhere in Mischelle's diary.

Kezer told Moriarty he had never met Mischelle or heard her name. "The first time I'd ever seen her is when my attorney brought me a picture of her obituary. That's the first time I had actually ever seen her face. When they began to ask me a few questions, right, about some murder, I was like, 'Why are they asking me about this stuff?'"

Josh Kezer fit the type - he was a 17-year-old dropout and rumored to be a gang member. He came from a broken home, bouncing between his parents and living on the street.

"You know, he had long hair, he was - he was dirty," Walter said. "He slept on the street a lot at times and slept wherever he could. He had already had a couple different run-ins with the law.

Kezer said, "I wasn't really that different from most kids that don't have an advantage. I was just going through some very difficult struggles."

Even though he insisted he was 350 miles away the night of the murder, investigators hauled Kezer into the office of Bill Ferrell, the Scott County sheriff at the time.

Kezer described his exchange with Sheriff Ferrell: "He settles into his chair…like a split second later, literally comes halfway over his desk and accuses me of killing, and I quote, 'his little girl.' And they were charging me with first-degree murder."

More than a year later, in June 1994, Josh Kezer got his day in court.

"What did you believe would happen at the trial?" Moriarty asked Kezer.

"I believed I would win," he replied. "What were they gonna present? They had blood underneath the victim's fingernails… It was not my type. It was not my DNA. They did not have fingerprints, palm prints. No weapon. No paper trail. No motive."

But the prosecution did have those jailhouse informants who took the stand and swore that Kezer had confessed to the murder. And then came a surprise witness.

At trial, although she could only see the back of Kezer's head in court, Chantelle Crider whispered to a friend that she thought she recognized him as a young man who had argued with Mischelle at a Halloween party just one week before her murder.

"This guy kept asking her out, and she refused. He was a real arrogant and - and very hateful," Crider told Moriarty. "He called her a bitch because she kept refusing and was like, 'leave me alone.' Then he asked me out, and I said, 'Are you crazy? You just asked my best friend out. There's no way.' And he slapped me in the back of my hair."

"Josh Kezer looked like him?" Moriarty asked Crider.

"It looked, yeah. It looked like him," she said.

It was the connection the prosecutor needed. Crider was questioned for hours by Sheriff Bill Ferrell and became the state's star witness.

Crider took the stand. She said she told the court, "I believed it was Josh."

Also on the stand was Mark Abbott, the man who had reported seeing Mischelle Lawless in her car the night of her murder. Once again, he identified Josh Kezer as the driver of the white car he saw near the crime scene. But the defense pointed out that Abbott had reported seeing several men that night and had given conflicting descriptions.

"They chose to rely on the credibility of a man who first claimed that it was a light-skinned black man, then a car load of Mexicans…and they finally settled on a pale white kid from Illinois," said Kezer.

No physical evidence tied Kezer to the murder, but the prosecutor told the jury that tests showed there was blood on Josh's jacket and in a car he was driving.

At the end of the trial, the jury came back with its verdict in just 3 1/2 hours, finding Kezer guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Mischelle Lawless.

"I'm sitting there ready to jump and then the verdict came back…guilty," Kezer recalled. "The only thing I remember is when the verdict came back I went numb. I was confused. I remember hearing myself yelling and screaming, 'It wasn't me. It wasn't me.'"

"What did you think when he yelled that leaving the courtroom? Moriarty asked Esther Lawless. "What else can he say, but 'I didn't do it,'" she replied.

Josh Kezer was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

He was sent to a notorious prison known as "The Walls," the Missouri State Penitentiary. Now closed, it was such a violent place that it was once called "the bloodiest 47 acres in America."

For nearly 10 years, Kezer lived in housing unit 4, cell 99.

"There was a point that I got attacked when I was in prison. There was some men who wanted to rape me and they tried and they failed. Praise God. But in the process of defending myself, I got beat up quite bad and ended up in the hospital… On two occasions, I prayed for death...I didn't want to wake up."