Missouri Governor Does Not Pardon Kevin Strickland, Who Prosecutor Says Is Wrongfully Imprisoned
Gov. Mike Parson could still choose to pardon Strickland, which would be exceedingly rare, but Strickland's legal team is pursuing other options for release and exoneration.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson passed on an opportunity to release a Kansas City man who has spent 43 years behind bars for a crime prosecutors say he did not commit. Parson left Kevin Strickland off the latest list of pardons.
The move leaves Kevin Strickland and his attorneys disappointed, and with fewer options for his exoneration.
"It's hard to imagine how everyone can know someone's innocent and he's still there," said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project. "At this point, no one with power has done the things to let him out."
Earlier this week the Missouri Supreme Court declined to consider Strickland's innocence conviction and, in the process, left unanswered questions about whether innocence is enough to exonerate a non-death penalty conviction in the state.
43 years of waiting
The Jackson County Prosecutor's office charged Strickland with capital murder in 1978 for his alleged involvement in the killing of Sherrie Black, John Walker and Larry Ingram at 6934 S. Benton Ave. in Kansas City.
Strickland, who will turn 62 on June 7, was 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 recanted in 2009. As reported by the Kansas City Star in September, two other men who pleaded guilty in the shooting named someone else as their accomplice.
Last month, after reviewing evidence that emerged since the murders, the prosecutor's office said Strickland is innocent and should be set free. Federal prosecutors in the Western District of Missouri, Jackson County’s presiding judge and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas agreed.
Strickland's team, led by the Midwest Innocence Project and international law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, has now filed the same motion denied a hearing by the Missouri Supreme Court, in the Circuit Court in DeKalb County where Strickland is being held in the Western Missouri Correctional Center.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said her office will file an amicus brief, also known as a friend of the court brief, in DeKalb County.
“Like we did with the Supreme Court, so we'll start off on the same footing, we hope,” Baker said.
Whether the prosecutor’s brief is considered is at the discretion of the circuit court judge.
"So the same court we're going to is the court that granted relief for Ricky Kidd," said Bushnell, referring to another Midwest Innocence Project client freed in 2019. "And it's one of the few courts that has said innocence is a claim (for release)."
There is no timetable for when that court may consider Strickland's case.
Parson has options remaining
Despite being left off the most recent list of pardons, Gov. Parson could still sign into law the General Assembly’s omnibus public safety bill, which includes a provision that would allow prosecuting attorneys to file such innocence motions with the circuit court that handed down the conviction.
"If the governor signs it though, it does not go into effect until August 28th," Bushnell said, "so the prosecutor could not file until that date. And so there's still, you know, months that Mr. Strickland would be waiting."
Jackson County’s prosecutor is confident the bill will pass.
“I know, being part of the drafting of that bill, that it was a bipartisan bill,” Baker said. “I do believe, August the 28th at 9:00 a.m., I will be filing a motion myself in my courthouse.”
A pardon from the governor is still a possibility, but it would be a rare show of clemency, according to Sean O'Brien, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and past president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
"We've got two pardons for murder in Missouri in two centuries, if you want to know if that's a viable alternative," he said in an interview earlier this week.
If the governor were inclined to release Strickland, Bushnell insisted he is only interested in a pardon — not a sentence commutation.
"He's been fighting for 43 years to clear his name, and nothing less than that is acceptable," she said.
Despite the setbacks, Bushnell said she has spoken with Strickland as recently as yesterday, and he is unfazed.
"I think of all of us, he's taking it in stride because he's been going through this for decades," she said. "This isn't his first loss."
Bushnell said the Midwest Innocence Project will soon set up a GoFundMe account for people looking to help support Strickland when he is released.
"When he comes home — because he will come home — he won't be entitled to any compensation, and there'll be nothing for him," she said. "He has medical needs, he's in a wheelchair ... and the reality is it's going to be the kindness of strangers that are going to be what allows him to (meet) any of them."
A DeKalb County judge could decide to release Strickland after hearings scheduled for Aug. 12-13. If that petition fails, the Jackson County Prosecutor says she will directly appeal for his innocence on Aug. 28, when a new Missouri law takes effect giving prosecutors the ability to revisit prior convictions.