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Missouri Supreme Court removes Jackson County judges from Kevin Strickland's innocence plea

News clippings of the Strickland case.
Photo Illustration-Carlos Moreno
/
MIdwest Innocence Project
A new state law gave prosecutors a way to revisit wrongful convictions in the courts that handed them down. After the Missouri Supreme Court recused the judges in the 16th Circuit Court, it appointed a semi-retired judge from Clay County to that jurisdiction.

Kevin Strickland has spent more than 43 years in prison for a crime prosecutors now say he did not commit. Judges in the court that convicted him have now been recused, and a new judge appointed.

The Missouri Supreme Court on Thursday removed every judge from the Jackson County Circuit Court from the innocence petition of Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man who prosecutors say has been wrongfully imprisoned for more than four decades.

The high court appointed a retired judge from Clay County and the state's Western District Court of Appeals to take up the innocence hearing.

It's unclear how the change will affect the timing of the hearing, but it had previously been scheduled in Jackson County for Oct. 5-6.

In the decision, the court wrote that the Jackson County judge acted appropriately, "nevertheless, to avoid even the appearance of partiality or impropriety, this Court finds it necessary to prohibit (Jackson County Judge Kevin Harrell, who was overseeing Strickland's hearing) and all other judges of the 16th Judicial Circuit from presiding."

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt had asked the Supreme Court to remove all Jackson County judges on the grounds that their presiding judge created the appearance of impropriety by saying that Strickland was innocent.

Schmitt also asked that all of Judge Harrell's prior rulings in the case be vacated, a request the high court did not address in their response. If granted, the request would likely delay the hearing further, as the new judge would have to rehear every motion Harrell ruled on.

Strickland was convicted in 1979 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years — in the same circuit court where judges have just been recused.

That conviction was built upon the testimony of a single witness, Cynthia Douglas. She recanted in 2009. As reported by the Kansas City Star in September, two other men who pleaded guilty in the murders have said Strickland was not involved.

In May, after months of reviewing evidence that emerged since the crime, the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office that's now headed by Jean Peters Baker said Strickland is innocent and should be set free. Federal prosecutors in the Western District of Missouri have agreed with her. So did Jackson County’s presiding judge, who's public declaration is the reason for the courts' recusal.

Schmitt’s office first questioned the court’s impartiality over an email that 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 was not the judge overseeing Strickland’s case.

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

On Thursday, Parson's office touted its actions on clemency applications in the state. Parson has granted 168 pardons, 13 commutations, and denied 1,134 requests for clemency, according to a news release.

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. Strickland was unable to attend his mother's funeral in September.

Strickland's innocence petition has faced repeated delays.

In June, the Missouri Supreme Court declined to take up Strickland's petition. The decision to decline came without explanation. That's typical for such orders.

August hearing dates were set in a DeKalb County court, where Strickland is detained. That avenue was eventually abandoned in favor of new state rule that gave local prosecutors the ability to challenge convictions like Strickland's in the court that handed them down.

For Strickland, every judge in that convicting court has now been ruled out.

"While we are disappointed in the decision, we are confident that any judge who hears the evidence will find that Kevin Strickland is innocent and end this decades-long injustice," Midwest Innocence Project Director Tricia Rojo Bushnell wrote in an email. Bushnell's team is handling Strickland's case with the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm.

"We hope this is the last delay the Attorney General is permitted to exercise," she wrote.

For the purposes of Strickland's hearing, the state Supreme Court has assigned Judge James Welsh to the 16th Circuit Court. Welsh was first a City of Liberty municipal judge, then associate circuit judge and circuit judge of Clay County, beginning in 1988. He was appointed to the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District in 2007, and has been semi-retired since March 2018.

Corrected: October 1, 2021 at 4:54 PM CDT
The Supreme Court of Missouri recused only the judges in the 16th District Circuit, and not the circuit itself, as suggested by a previous version of this story. That version also misattributed language in the Supreme Court's ruling solely to Chief Justice Paul Wilson.
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