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As His Family Mourns Their Mother's Death In Kansas City, Kevin Strickland Remains Behind Bars

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Luke X. Martin
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KCUR 89.3 / Courtesy of L.R. Strickland
A family photo with Kevin Strickland, taken during a visit in 2019, shows, from left, L.R. Strickland, Rosetta Thornton and Stephanie Strickland, L.R.'s wife.

Legal delays and appeals from the Missouri Attorney General's Office have kept Strickland incarcerated, despite the fact that Jackson County Prosecutors say he's innocent. His family is bearing the burden.

Family members of Kevin Strickland gathered in Raytown, Missouri, Saturday to remember the life of his mother, Rosetta Thornton, who died Aug. 21.

But Strickland, who was convicted of murder in 1979, wasn’t there. He spent the day in a Cameron, Missouri, prison, despite the fact prosecutors in his case have said since May that he is innocent, and should be free.

“I don’t understand it,” said Carol Jones, Strickland’s cousin, hours before the service. The last time she saw Strickland was more than a year ago, before the coronavirus pandemic made those trips north from Kansas City pretty much impossible.

But for a few days this week, it seemed as though a Jackson County judge might release Strickland, just in time to be at the funeral.

Instead, Missouri’s attorney general used an emergency court filing to argue they did not have enough time to prepare for a hearing that Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has been telegraphing since June. The state’s Western District of Appeals agreed.

“It’s been a burden on us,” Jones said.

Jones, an only child whose mother died in 1982, said Thornton was like another mother to her, who nurtured a tight-knit family and loved her son dearly.

“She wouldn't waste no time to get up there to see him, because I would go with her,” Jones said. “We would sit and talk, and she was telling me how she loves her son, and wished that he would get out so that she would live to see him (free) one day.”

Thornton, who had been living with dementia for about six years, was 85 when she died. According to her oldest son, L.R. Strickland, she first came to Kansas City in 1954, from Dumas, Arkansas, where she worked as a sharecropper.

“My first job, I worked alongside of my mother,” L.R. told KCUR in a phone interview on Friday. “She started me up as a kitchen helper — she was a fry cook” at Henry’s Barbecue and Grill in Gladstone, Missouri. She kept up a strong work ethic throughout her life, L.R. said, and she loved fishing, dancing, driving fast and watching television.

As for her son Kevin’s conviction, L.R. said she thought justice was certainly being denied.

“She did what she could do as a mother, but there was not a whole lot that anyone could do,” he said. “All she could do was still be here for him, and I think this situation took that last chance away for them to be together again.”

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Luke X. Martin
L.R. Strickland displays the order of service program at his mother's funeral. It read in part; "She watched The Price Is Right every day, loved to watch Royals and Chiefs play, and you could hear her yelling, 'Get 'em' on any given Sunday."

Strickland's original conviction

Jackson County Prosecutors first charged Strickland in 1979 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. A jury convicted Strickland, and the 18-year-old was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years.

Baker’s conclusion that Strickland is innocent came after a months-long review of new evidence in the case. But Missouri’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, and Gov. Mike Parson, who could pardon Strickland at any time, have repeatedly said the guilty verdict was appropriate.

That verdict hinged on the testimony of a lone eyewitness, Cynthia Douglas, who was wounded in the attack. According to a court filing from the prosecutor’s office, though, Douglas soon realized she was mistaken and recanted her testimony.

Two other men identified by Douglas, both of whom pleaded guilty, have said that Strickland wasn’t involved in the murders. Both of them have since been released.

Baker’s filing motion also noted that fingerprints taken from the shotgun used in the killings do not belong to Strickland.

The motion also suggests the 1979 case was racially biased because of an all-white jury.

Baker, though, was unable to make direct appeals on Strickland’s behalf until Aug. 28, when a new state law went into effect allowing local prosecutors to revisit wrongful convictions in the courts that handed them down.

A new date for Strickland’s hearing is now up in the air, but Judge Kevin Harrell set a date of Sept. 13 to decide whether he will continue to preside over the case and whether the 16th Circuit Court of Jackson County is the proper venue.

A view from the inside

Eric Anderson was an inmate in Michigan while four loved ones passed away, and he was unable to attend their funerals. Anderson, 31, said he knows what Strickland must be going through today.

“Prison isolates you,” said Anderson, who was wrongfully convicted of armed robbery and spent nine years behind bars. “It isolates you from society, it isolates you from friends, family, culture — you know, everything that we deal with out here that we may take for granted.”

Anderson is a member of the National Organization of Exonerees, a group based in Detroit that has traveled to Missouri to press for the release of Strickland in Kansas City and Lamar Johnson in St. Louis.

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Luke X. Martin
L.R. Strickland and his wife, Stephanie, both in blue, greet a guest Saturday morning at Graceway Church in Raytown, Missouri.

“I couldn't really feel how everyone else felt, like in my family, because I wasn't physically around them,” Anderson remembered. “So I had to deal with my pain a whole different way.”

One of the ways Anderson dealt with that pain was by burying it, he said, and trying not to dwell on the past.

“I called on at least one funeral day to check on everybody, but, you know, I get on the phone — everybody’s crying,” Anderson said, pausing to collect himself. “It was rough. I mean, it still is.”

Strickland, too, has lost several family members in his 43 years in Missouri prisons — his father in 2011, a sister about a year later, and aunts and uncles — and has been unable to attend any of their funerals.

Missouri inmates can request to attend the funerals of loved ones, but they are rarely granted, according to Tricia Rojo Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project, which has taken up Strickland's case.

"If he did get out."

Strickland’s cousin Carol Jones and brother L.R. Strickland both said he and his mother were very close.

“He said the first thing that he would do, if he did get out, would be go to his brother's house, and put his arms around his mother one last time,” said Jones.

Because of her dementia, L.R. wondered if she would remember his younger brother. Nevertheless, L.R. said, “I don't think anything could have helped her more than to see her son one last time before she left this world.”

Instead of celebrating their matriarch’s life, and picking things up where they left off with Kevin, the family is left to wonder why the state is fighting so hard to keep Strickland behind bars.

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Luke X. Martin
"There's no reason that my brother should be in prison in the first place," said L.R. Strickland. "To me it's inconceivable."

In conversations with KCUR, L.R. repeatedly questioned why Eric Schmitt's office seemed intent on keeping his brother locked up, and Jones was baffled that the governor hasn't done more to intervene.

“I wish I could ask Parson. … I feel like sending a letter, but I haven't,” said Jones. “I don't understand how he's released so many other people and my cousin's still sitting in the same spot. It's just ridiculous.”

Now, though, when Strickland is released, his mother won’t be around to welcome him back with an embrace, she said.

“My aunt (had) a beautiful smile, and I know that she would have been smiling from ear to ear, because that’s how she does,” Jones said. “And she would be crying from her happiness, because that's what she does.”

Despite what they’ve been through as a family, Jones still holds out hope for when her cousin is no longer kept from those who love him most.

“Oh boy, I'm going to give him the biggest hug, and I imagine he's going to probably want to go get him a hamburger and maybe some Church's Chicken,” she laughed, trailing off. “It would be a beautiful day for me. It would be the best feeling that I've had for a long, long time.”

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