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Using New Missouri Law, Jackson County Prosecutor Files Motion To Free Kevin Strickland After 43 Years

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Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
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MIdwest Innocence Project

The Jackson County Prosecutor said in a court filing made public Monday that Kevin Strickland's "innocence is clear and convincing."

In a first-of-its-kind court filing in Missouri, the Jackson County prosecutor said Kevin Strickland, in prison for 43 years for a triple murder, is "actually innocent" and that he "should not remain in custody a day longer."

According to the motion filed over the weekend and made public Monday, Strickland's innocence is "clear and convincing."

Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker added in a press release, "Most of us have heard the famous quotation that 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' Kevin Strickland stands as our own example of what happens when a system set to be just, just gets it terribly wrong."

Prosecutor's case

In the filing, Baker makes three major points: the only eyewitness to the 1979 murders repeatedly recanted her testimony before she died, there is no physical evidence linking Strickland to the crime and prosecutors at the time deliberately excluded Black jurors from a second trial after the first one ended in a mistrial.

The filing is the result of a wide-ranging public safety law signed this summer by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson that went into effect on Saturday.

Provisions in the new law allow local prosecutors to revisit wrongful convictions in the courts that handed them down, a maneuver missing in the state since 1988.

Baker has now asked for an expedited hearing from Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Harrell in Division 18, the same division where Strickland was convicted in 1979.

The Jackson County Prosecutor's office charged Strickland with capital murder for his alleged involvement in the killing of Sherrie Black, John Walker and Larry Ingram at 6934 S. Benton Ave., in Kansas City.

The only eyewitness, Cynthia Douglas, was wounded during the attack, but, as early as 1979, "realized she was mistaken in her identification of Strickland," the motion argues. Then, "after years of torment and consternation over what to do about the mistake," Douglas asked for help from the Midwest Innocence Project in 2009.

Baker also said in her motion that expected testimony in the hearing "will further corroborate Douglas's realization that she was mistaken in her identification of Strickland." The motion gave no detail about who might testify.

The motion also suggests the 1979 case was weak. "Armed with only tainted identification and weak physical evidence, it took two trials for the State to convict Strickland." The first ended in a mistrial, which prosecutors blamed on the inclusion of a Black juror.

The prosecutor at the time said the seating of that juror was "careless" and a "mistake that would not be repeated," the motion said. At the second trial, Strickland was convicted by an all-white jury.

Baker added that as late as 2020, a fingerprint analysis showed prints taken from the shotgun used in the killings do not belong to Strickland

In May, after reviewing evidence that emerged since the murders, Baker’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 elected officials on both sides of the aisle have agreed.

But Parson, who could pardon Strickland at any time, and Attorney General Eric Schmitt have repeatedly argued that Strickland got his day in court. “A jury found Petitioner Kevin Strickland guilty after a fair trial,” the office wrote in court filings this year. “For more than 40 years since, Strickland has worked to evade responsibility.”

Family Loss

“This has just been a nightmare, every single day of the entire 43 years,” said L.R. Strickland, who is at a loss for why his younger brother Kevin is still behind bars.

While they remain hopeful for his release, the family is also mourning the loss of their mother, Rosetta Thorton, who died about a week before the new law took effect. "Our mother meant a tremendous amount to us," L.R. said. "We were very, very close.”

Missouri inmates can request to attend the funerals of loved ones, but they are rarely granted, according to Strickland's attorney, Tricia Rojo Bushnell.

A timetable for the case has not been set, but attorneys from the Midwest Innocence Project, which is handling Strickland's case, are keeping their expectations low.

“We have to intrinsically be hopeful and optimistic people to think that decades of injustice can be unraveled," Innocence Project Director Bushnell said, "but I think (we) also have to be incredibly realistic because we know how many times people have lost.”

Meanwhile, the Strickland family continues to do the best they can to get by, L.R. Strickland said.

“When (Kevin) was taken away to prison, that really was like a traumatic situation, and it hasn't been the same since,” he said. The family has started a GoFundMe to help pay for their mother's funeral costs.

L.R. said it will likely be the third family funeral his brother has missed; Strickland’s father died in 2011, followed by one of his sisters about a year after that.

“He puts up a good face, it seems like he's handling it well," L.R. said about his brother, "but I'm not inside the individual to know how he truly feels.”

Updated: August 31, 2021 at 4:51 PM CDT
Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Harrell will begin hearing evidence Thursday morning, Sept. 2, in Kevin Strickland’s innocence petition.

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