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Judge In Strickland Case Set To Decide Whether Innocence Hearing Will Be Held In Jackson County

Pool Photo / Tammy Ljungblad
The Kansas City Star
Attorney Robert Hoffman of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner argues a point on behalf of Kevin Strickland during a hearing Monday, Sept. 13, 2021 in Jackson County Circuit Court in Kansas City. Strickland's attorneys, Jackson County prosecutors and lawyers with the Missouri Attorney General's Office argued before Judge Kevin Harrell over motions filed by the attorney general in Strickland's innocence case. One motion requested Jackson County judges recuse themselves from the case. Strickland was convicted of a 1978 triple murder the Jackson County prosecutor says he did not commit.

The Missouri Attorney General has raised questions about the appearance of bias within the 16th District Circuit Court and asked the judge to recuse himself and the jurisdiction. A date for Kevin Strickland's innocence hearing has still not been set.

A Jackson County judge heard arguments Monday to determine whether Kansas City’s downtown courthouse, and the 16th District Circuit Court, is the proper venue to hear Kevin Strickland’s innocence petition.

In a court filing last month, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt questioned the court’s impartiality.

It’s the same court that convicted Strickland of triple murder in 1979, and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years — a crime Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has said since May that Strickland did not commit.

“Missouri courts have said that it's important that both justice is done, and that the appearance of justice is also done,” Assistant Attorney General Andrew Clarke told Judge Kevin Harrell in court on Monday.

Harrell did not decide whether to recuse himself and his jurisdiction, but said he intends to rule on the question Friday morning. He’ll also likely decide whether Strickland’s innocence petition, which is currently in criminal proceedings, should be refiled as a civil case.

“I know that everyone is looking for a quick decision,” Harrell said, though he did not set a date to hear the evidence that could exonerate Strickland.

A last-minute delay

Schmitt’s office questioned the court’s impartiality over a May email that Jackson County Presiding Judge J. Dale Youngs sent to strengthen Strickland’s clemency application.

The email was written on behalf of the court and sent to Baker’s office, which, in turn, shared its message with the New York Times and other third parties, Schmitt’s office alleged. In the letter, Youngs agreed that the original conviction should be set aside and that the evidence shows Strickland’s innocence.

Youngs is not the judge overseeing Strickland’s case. There have been no questions regarding Harrell's conduct.

“The statement has been given to so many parties, both third- and other state actors, and it's traded on this court's credibility,” Clarke said.

But the letter and its message were entirely proper, Baker responded in a court filing last week, and the actions of one judge should not disqualify another in the same circuit.

“Judge Youngs’s statement was made in the course of official duties for an individual seeking clemency in the absence of the original trial judge,” Baker wrote. “This Court need not recuse simply because the presiding judge made a proper statement in his official capacity … ”

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3 / Courtesy of L.R. Strickland
A family photo with Kevin Strickland, taken during a visit in 2019, shows, from left, his brother L.R. Strickland, his late mother Rosetta Thornton and sister-in-law Stephanie Strickland. Strickland was unable to attend Thornton's funeral on Sept. 4.

“At the end of all of this, there is a real-live human being, and while the state argues with the state about which … court can decide the matter, my client, Mr. Strickland, sits in prison,” said Robert Hoffman, partner at the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, which is helping handle Strickland’s case. “That is the height of injustice.”

Strickland was originally convicted of a triple murder in south Kansas City, but Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Bakers has said since May that Strickland is innocent.

The conviction hinged on the testimony of a lone eyewitness, who recanted her testimony in 2009.

Two other men who pleaded guilty to the murders have said that Strickland wasn’t involved, and a court filing from Baker’s office 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.

But Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who could pardon Strickland at any time, and Schmitt have repeatedly said he got a fair trial.

“The attorney general has no interest in delaying this case unnecessarily,” Assistant Attorney General Clarke said during Monday's hearing. “The merits need to be heard, however, they need to be heard where there is no appearance of impropriety.”

Baker had previously been unable to make direct appeals on Strickland’s behalf, but on Aug. 28 a new state law enabled local prosecutors to revisit wrongful convictions in the courts that handed them down.

Just last week, former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward Robertson joined Baker’s team working to exonerate Strickland. Robertson, who was appointed by former Republican Gov. John Ashcroft in 1985, served on the state’s highest court until 1998.

A date to consider the evidence in Strickland’s case had previously been set for Sept. 2, but appeals from Schmitt claimed it didn’t leave his office enough time to prepare, delaying an effort to consider Strickland's innocence.

A new date for that evidentiary hearing has not been set.

As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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