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The Jackson County Prosecutor Says Kevin Strickland Is Innocent. Why Is He Still Behind Bars?

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Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
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MIdwest Innocence Project
Because of confusion over whether innocence is enough for a non-death penalty conviction to be overturned in Missouri, Kevin Strickland remains incarcerated at a prison in DeKalb County.

Despite being declared innocent by the prosecutor's office that convicted him, Kevin Strickland is still doing time for a triple-murder from decades ago that he was not involved in.

Updated: June 2, 2021 at 8:50 AM CDT
The Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear Kevin Strickland's case, denying the Midwest Innocence Project's petition to release Strickland after evidence indicating he has been wrongfully imprisoned for 43 years. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says her office will continue to pursue justice for Strickland.

It’s been nearly a month since the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office found that evidence used to prosecute and imprison Kevin Strickland for more than 40 years was flawed, and concluded that he should be released.

“My job is to protect the innocent,” the county’s top prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, said when she presented the findings at a press conference. “It is important to recognize when the system has made wrongs, and what we did in this case was wrong.”

Federal prosecutors in the Western District of Missouri, Jackson County’s presiding judge and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas agreed with her and have said Strickland deserves exoneration.

“Harms like this extend beyond criminal defendants and those with the title of victim,” Baker said. ”It goes to the broader community.”

Nevertheless, Strickland remains behind bars, and could remain there for years. His potential freedom is in the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court, where attorneys from the Midwest Innocence Project have filed a petition requesting his release.

The maneuver is necessary because, since 1988, local prosecutors in Missouri have no way of revisiting convictions in the courts that handed them down. Most other options in Missouri rely on the state's attorney general.

“And they fight every single one of these cases,” said Sean O’Brien, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and founding board member of the Midwest Innocence Project.

According to a review by Injustice Watch, Missouri's attorney general has opposed nearly every wrongful conviction case that has come before it and been vacated since 2000, including 27 in which prisoners were eventually exonerated.

That resistance continues regardless of political party affiliation.

“They've got ethical dyslexia about what it means to represent the interests of the people of the state of Missouri,” said O’Brien.

In Kansas, defendants like Strickland can file a petition for freedom before a judge in the same court where they were tried. Given that option, Strickland could possibly have been released by now.

“Some of you are probably surprised to learn that I don’t have any actual power here,” Baker said at the press conference. “The local DA should have power because we carry a responsibility long after convictions are done.”

In May, the Missouri General Assembly approved a bill that would, among other things, allow prosecuting attorneys to file such motions with the circuit court that handed down the conviction.

The bill has yet to be signed by Gov. Mike Parson and the Missouri Supreme Court has not released a timetable for considering Strickland’s petition.

According to a press release from Strickland’s lawyers, they also decided to file his petition in the Missouri Supreme Court, in part, because of confusion about whether innocence is enough for a conviction to be overturned, particularly if the defendant was not sentenced to death.

The confusion stems from two previous Innocence cases:

  • In 2003 the Missouri Supreme Court ordered the release or retrial of Joseph Amrine, who served 17 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit. In effect, the court said innocence was a claim for relief.
  • But in 2016, the state’s Western District Court of Appeals declined to do the same for Rodney Lincoln, another Midwest Innocence Project client who, unlike Amrine, had not been sentenced to death.
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According to a letter from the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office, the only survivor of the attack immediately identified two men, Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins, who eventually pleaded guilty. Strickland's ID didn't come until the next day.

A grisly crime and a recanting witness

Strickland was 18 years old in 1978, when he was accused of taking part in the killing of Sherrie Black, John Walker and Larry Ingram at 6934 S. Benton Ave. in Kansas City. Strickland was eventually charged with capital murder, convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years.

The conviction hinged on the testimony of Cynthia Douglas, who was shot in the leg during the attack. Afterwards, Douglas immediately identified two of the suspects, both of whom eventually pleaded guilty. But, according to a letter from the Jackson County Prosecutor, Douglas only got “a glance” at the third suspect.

She didn’t pick out Strickland, who she knew personally, until the next day, and only after it was suggested to her by her sister’s boyfriend.

“Ms. Douglas was a traumatized young victim who, that night, had smoked marijuana while drinking cognac. Then she was shot, with her best friend and boyfriend slain next to her,” the prosecutor wrote. “(The identification) was problematic to begin with.”

Douglas recanted her testimony against Strickland in 2009, and, as reported by the Kansas City Star in September, the two men who pleaded guilty in the shooting named someone else as their accomplice.

“Once she became aware of her mistake, Ms. Douglas did everything she could to free Mr. Strickland and she bears no responsibility for the years Mr. Strickland has lost,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project. “Mr. Strickland’s conviction was the failure of a system.”

Identifying the wrongly convicted and compensating them

Though the concept isn’t new, prosecutors across the country have in recent years created Conviction Integrity Units to review convictions for mistakes. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 80 review units exist across the country — three in Missouri and one in Kansas.

Strickland is the first inmate found innocent by Baker's unit.

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Carlos Moreno
Prosecutor Jean Peters-Baker formed the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit in 2017. It examines post-conviction claims of innocence where credible evidence exists that was not known at the time of conviction

And even if Strickland, now 61, were freed today, he wouldn’t be compensated for the time he spent in prison because the conviction, and his innocence, rely on eyewitnesses.

That’s because the state of Missouri only compensates a narrow slice of prisoners exonerated through DNA evidence, according to O’Brien. In the fraction of cases that do qualify, exonerees receive $50 for each day of post-conviction imprisonment, and only up to $36,000 a year.

“The state is aggressive about protecting the taxpayer money from judgment by exonerated people,” said O’Brien, a former Jackson County public defender and past president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “You can count on one hand, the number of people who have qualified for compensation under the statute.”

In contrast, a 2018 Kansas law awards exonerees $65,000 per year of wrongful conviction, $25,000 for each year of time wrongfully spent on parole, and non-monetary benefits like housing and tuition assistance, financial literacy training, counseling and expungement of the conviction.

It’s one of the strongest compensations rules in the country, according to the Midwest Innocence Project, and came about just months after the release of Lamonte McIntyre, who spent 23 years in prison for a double murder he was not involved in.

It was Kansas’ then-Gov. Jeff Colyer who signed the bill into law. On the Missouri side, Gov. Mike Parson now has two options to free Kevin Strickland — by pardoning him outright, or by signing the General Assembly’s omnibus public safety bill.

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