Justice on Fire

Book Review By Carole Seligman

Justice on Fire, The Kansas City Firefighters Case and the Railroading of the Marlborough Five

By J. Patrick O’Connor

University of Kansas Press

On November 29, 1988, a fierce explosion—clearly arson—at a construction site near the impoverished Kansas City Marlborough neighborhood killed six firefighters. This was the worst disaster in its history ever to befall the Kansas City Fire Department. Five Marlborough residents were eventually indicted, tried, and in 1997 convicted of the crime.

This is a powerhouse of a book. It is a meticulous dissection of an historic, real case of a frame up, but it reads like a mystery. I was on pins and needles, especially near the end of the book, in which the last court appeal took place for the prisoner who was a juvenile at the time of the alleged crime. The book is a long one—346 pages with extensive endnotes, a full bibliography, a timeline, and a directory of the many people involved. Mr. O’Connor, the author, has done two kinds of research, which inform this book. He has extensively studied all the public records on the case—court transcripts, police logs, government reports, newspaper articles. He also got personally involved as he became thoroughly convinced of the innocence of the five men convicted. He interviewed every person (on all sides of the case) who was willing to talk to him—and there are scores of such people—“witnesses,” the accused and convicted, their family members, family members of the six firefighter victims, lawyers, police, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) officials, journalists, and others; and he attended court proceedings. Even at the very end of the book new evidence has come to light this year pointing to the frame up.

The evidence that sticks in the craw, and is a theme throughout this prodigious piece of research, is evidence pointing squarely at other people who were on the scene at the time of the disastrous fire and explosions—people who had a motive to set the deadly fire, people who changed their own alibi stories many times. Besides the scrupulous attention to facts and details about this case, the author writes well and has exposed a cruel and persistent fact of life in the United States—the conviction and incarceration of the innocent for crimes they did not commit. This tragedy is not only exposed, but explained in detail. Like Bryan Stevens’ Just Mercy—about wrongful convictions of death row prisoners—this book makes the reader want to get involved and do something to correct this terrible wrong. 

O’Connor has also published excellent books about other frame-ups—The Framing of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Scapegoat: The Chino Hills Murders and the Framing of Kevin Cooper. Like the cases of the three remaining prisoners of the firefighter case—Richard Brown, Darlene Edwards, and Frank Sheppard (Skip Sheppard died in prison, Bryan Sheppard has been released)—Mumia Abu-Jamal and Kevin Cooper are innocent and still fighting, after decades in prison, for justice, for freedom. O’Connor’s journalistic work exposing the truth in all these important cases is so valuable for all who love justice and seek to bring it about.