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Jackson County Judge Rules Against Attorney General In Kevin Strickland Case, Hearing Date Set

STICKLAND HEARING 091321
Pool Photo / Tammy Ljungblad
/
The Kansas City Star
Kate Brubacher, right, assistant prosecuting attorney for Jackson County Prosecutor's Office, argues a point during a hearing Monday, Sept. 13, in Jackson County Circuit Court on behalf of Kevin Strickland. Strickland's attorneys, Jackson County prosecutors and lawyers with the Missouri Attorney General's Office argued over motions filed by the attorney general, one of which requested Jackson County judges recuse themselves from the case.

Judge Kevin Harrell decided not to recuse himself or Jackson County's 16th District Circuit Court from the case — a ruling that could be appealed by the state attorney general.

Jackson County Judge Kevin Harrell ruled Friday that the innocence petition of Kevin Strickland will continue in the 16th Circuit Court.

In a court filing last month, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt questioned the court’s impartiality and asked that the proceedings be moved.

Harrell's ruling, which the attorney general could appeal, sets the stage for an evidentiary hearing 43 years in the making.

“This court is unabashedly independent, unambiguously impartial, humbly competent and uniquely qualified in executing its judicial obligations,” Harrell said when he handed down his judgement.

After announcing the decision, Harrell tentatively set a date for Strickland’s evidentiary hearing of Oct. 6 and 7. Scheduling conflicts could push those dates forward a day.

The hearing would be Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker’s first opportunity to argue for Strickland’s exoneration in front of a judge. Baker has said since May that Strickland, who is 62, is innocent and should be set free.

“I think the point that needs to be made is that this hearing will happen,” Baker told KCUR after previous delays spanning the last month. “There is going to be a hearing, Kevin Strickland will receive his day in court.”

Strickland was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for 50 years in 1979, in the same circuit court that is set to hear his innocence case.

That conviction hinged on the testimony of a single eyewitness, Cynthia Douglas, who recanted in 2009.

Two other men who pleaded guilty to the murders have also said Strickland wasn’t an accomplice, 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 proceedings were racially biased because of an all-white jury.

But Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who could pardon Strickland at any time, and the attorney general have repeatedly said he received a fair trial.

210904_LXM_KevinStricklandFamily.jpg
Luke X. Martin
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.

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

In the email, Youngs agreed with the prosecutor's conclusion that Strickland’s original conviction should be set aside. Youngs, though, is not the judge overseeing Strickland’s case.

In his ruling today, Judge Harrell determined that the email and its contents were not enough to disqualify all other 16th Circuit Court judges.

“This court finds there is no factual basis evidencing a special relationship between it and the presiding judge, that would warrant recusal from this matter,” Harrell said.

Attorneys from Schmitt's office referred questions about the possibility of appeals to their press secretary, who said, "We'll determine our next steps soon."

If appealed, Harrell’s decision would be taken up by the Western District Court of Appeals.

Harrell also ruled the hearing should use the rules for a criminal proceeding, and not a civil proceeding, as the attorney general's office had requested in a prior motion.

Despite not being a party to the innocence petition, the attorney general’s office will be able to present arguments and question witnesses during the hearing. Jackson County prosecutors and Strickland’s attorneys have tried to limit the attorney general’s ability to file motions in the case, but those attempts were rebuffed by the appeals court.

“This court,” Harrell said, “has every intention to allow all participants an opportunity to meaningfully participate."

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

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