KC attorneys help convicted murderer win record settlement for secondhand smoke exposure

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Missouri prisons will soon go smoke-free. It’s all because of an inmate who spent time on death row and two Kansas City attorneys who won the landmark decision with virtually no trial experience.

Ecclesiastical Denzel Washington was convicted of strangling two women in 1989. He spent 14 years on death row before winning an appeal to have his sentence reduced to life in prison at Crossroads Correctional in Cameron, Missouri.

Even though he avoided lethal injection, he complained over and over again to the warden he was essentially living in a gas chamber because of his cellmate.

“He was sentenced to life in jail, he wasn’t sentenced to life in jail with constant exposure to secondhand smoke," Mike Foster, partner at Polsinelli Law Firm, said.

When the effects on his asthma were ignored, Washington connected with Foster and Phil Zeeck, Kansas City attorneys who were just looking for some trial experience.

“I had never done this stuff in my life before," Foster said of his research into secondhand smoke litigation.

The Kansas City attorneys took the case pro bono, but admit they didn’t think the lawsuit had a chance.

“Cases like this one are filed all the time and they are almost never successful," Zeeck said.

But as they started to investigate they say they found 95 percent of Missouri inmates smoke. Some of those inmates testified they smoked as many as two packs a day. The Missouri Department of Corrections allowed inmates to buy cigarettes from the commissary but were only supposed to smoke them outside.

“To think that a prisoner who is addicted to cigarettes isn’t going to smoke in that cell, even if has cellmate has asthma, they are going to smoke," Foster said.

The jury agreed, saying the convicted double murderer was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Washington was awarded $111,000 in what may be one of the largest second hand smoke settlements in history.

But that’s not all, as part of the stipulated agreement, the judge ordered the Missouri Department of Corrections to ban tobacco from its prisons all together. Washington’s attorneys say the money taxpayers will save on health costs for inmates who can’t smoke, far outweighs the settlement.

“It’s clear the policy was out of date and needed to change, better late than never," Zeeck said.

What does a 53-year-old who will spend his life in prison do with all that money? His attorneys say he will use it to continue to fight his conviction.

Washington has faced a lot of backlash from inmates who are upset they will no longer be able to smoke on prison grounds because of his lawsuit starting in April. As a result, he will likely be transferred to a prison out of state for his protection.

The Missouri Department of Corrections reports both guards and inmates have smoking cessation programs already available to them to help them prepare for the changes April 1.