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How The Legal Battle In Missouri Over Kevin Strickland's Exoneration Became Political

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Photo Illustration by Carlos Moreno and Jeff Roberson
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AP and KCUR 89.3
Political scientists say the United States' judicial system has always been influenced by ideology, but the legal battle over Kevin Strickland's innocence could erode perceptions that courts stand apart from the political system.

Like face masks and Medicaid expansion, the future of Kevin Strickland seems to have entered the state's political arena.

Americans, by and large, like to think of the nation's courts as exempt from politics or ideology.

As University of Missouri political scientist Stephen Graves put it, “We may not get the presidents that we want, or the governors we want, the senators that we want, but we do look to the judicial system … to be that third, outside party to advocate for justice.”

That image of the courts, though, does not necessarily reflect reality, Graves said, as indicated in the case of Kevin Strickland.

Last week, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office issued subpoenas that would force the Jackson County Prosecutor to turn over communications with third parties concerning Strickland’s case.

It is the latest volley in a legal strategy that has caught the attention of judicial and political observers in the state.

“This is the first time I have ever seen this done anywhere, in any state, by any prosecutor in my life,” said Sean O’Brien, who has been practicing law for 41 years. “I think it’s a fishing expedition.”

O’Brien is a professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was the chief public defender in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1985-89. He also helped found the Midwest Innocence Project, which is helping handle Strickland’s legal defense.

How we got to where we are

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.

Despite the fact that the prosecutor's office brought the original case against him, Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, a Democrat, has insisted since May that Strickland is innocent. Her conclusion came after a months-long review of new evidence in the case.

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The home where Sherrie Black, John Walker and Larry Ingram where shot to death. 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.

But the state’s Republican governor and attorney general have refused to accept that narrative.

Gov. Mike Parson, a former Polk County sheriff, could issue a pardon at any time, but has repeatedly cast doubt on Strickland’s innocence.

“I am not convinced that I’m willing to put other people at risk if you’re not right,” Parson told 41 Action News in June. “No one has been proven innocent here in a court of law, is the bottom line.”

The state Attorney General’s Office, which has the option of contesting innocence claims like Strickland’s, holds a similar position.

“A jury found Petitioner Kevin Strickland guilty after a fair trial,” the office wrote in court filings. “For more than 40 years since, Strickland has worked to evade responsibility.”

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

That resistance continues regardless of political party affiliation.

“Harms like this extend beyond criminal defendants and those with the title of victim,” Baker said when she announced Strickland’s innocence. ”It goes to the broader community.”

She’s been bolstered since by statements and support from Kansas City’s Democratic mayor, and local and state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. The case has also received the attention of liberal media outlets like the Rachel Maddow Show.

In an email, Chris Nuelle, press secretary for the Missouri Attorney General’s office, defended the subpoenas.

“Kevin Strickland’s attorneys have endorsed Jean Peters Baker and a member of her staff as expert witnesses for their case, making their communications with third parties very much relevant and material to the case,” he wrote. “We’re simply doing our duty and handling the case in good faith, no politics have ever come into play from the Attorney General’s Office.”

The subpoenas, which were narrowed to only include communications since Jan. 1, 2020, are part of legal proceedings in DeKalb County, where Strickland is in prison, and leading up to a hearing in November that was originally scheduled for last week.

Strickland, however, could be released before then. On Aug. 28, a new law will give Missouri prosecutors the ability to revisit convictions in the courts that handed them down.

The Jackson County prosecutor has said she plans to file her petition as soon as possible — the Monday after the law takes effect.

A history of politics in the courts

According to Benjamin Woodson, a UMKC political scientist who researches public support for the judicial system, from about the Civil War until the middle of the 1900s, the United States developed a norm where the courts are thought of as an impartial institution, only interpreting the letter of law.

“Even though that's how people talk about it, that doesn't mean that it's not political,” Woodson said. “Essentially, every decision a prosecutor makes is a political decision, in the same way that every decision the governor makes is a political decision.”

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Carlos Moreno
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker speaking to the media and assembled crowd outside of Kansas City Hall last summer.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt has subpoenaed a long list of evidence, including the private emails and texts from Jackson County’s chief deputy prosecutor. Jean Peters Baker called it curious, and a form of harassment.

"What does this have to do with the guilt or innocence of Kevin Strickland?" she told KCUR in a text message.

Law professor Sean O’Brien took the question one step further.

“The case will be decided on evidence and not on any communication between lawyers,” he said. “Nothing that Jean Peters Baker says or thinks is admissible evidence at the hearing.”

While the legal and political processes play out, Strickland, who is 62 and now uses a wheelchair, remains behind bars.

He 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.

“People just have a deep mistrust of government,” said Mizzou’s Stephen Graves.

The longer and more frequently people watch political fights happen in the courts, he said, the more likely it is that mistrust will extend to the judicial branch.

“That's going to ultimately just hurt American democracy and our ability to do things in this country is going to get worse,” Graves said. “While it seems like this is about a Black man trying to get his innocence … this is a much larger issue for criminal justice that has been in need of reform for a long period of time.”

Updated: August 19, 2021 at 1:36 PM CDT
Kevin Strickland’s legal team on Wednesday ended his innocence petition in DeKalb County Circuit Court. The move closes one of two avenues Strickland could pursue. In the court filing, Strickland’s attorneys said the Attorney General’s Office “demonstrate that [they are] not interested in even considering the evidence of Strickland’s innocence.”

Strickland’s attorneys will now focus on making their case in Jackson County, using a new state law that takes effect Aug. 28, which allows prosecutors to challenge his original conviction in the court that handed it down.
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