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Kevin Strickland takes the stand during the first day of his Jackson County innocence hearing

Pool photo / Tammy Ljungblad
The Kansas City Star
Kevin Strickland answers questions during an evidentiary hearing on Monday in Jackson County Circuit Court in Kansas City. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in May she believes Strickland was wrongly convicted of a triple murder in 1978.

Prosecutors have said since May that Kevin Strickland is innocent. For the first time in four decades, he got to make his case to a judge.

Since he was 18, Kevin Strickland has been in prison, waiting for a chance to clear his name. On Monday, the 62-year-old took the witness stand at his Jackson County evidentiary hearing and professed his innocence in the 1978 triple murder that put him behind bars.

“I had absolutely nothing to do with these murders,” Strickland testified. “By no means was I anywhere close to that crime scene.”

In her arguments Monday, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said there is no physical evidence tying Strickland to the killings. Baker also argued that the crime’s only eyewitness, Cynthia Douglas, tried to recant her story for years. Douglas died in 2015.

This hearing, Baker said, was a chance to “correct the unthinkable” — Strickland’s wrongful conviction.

Attorneys from the office of Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has twice succeeded in delaying the hearing, argued that Strickland got a fair trial and guilty verdict 43 years ago.

Attorneys from Schmitt’s office said Strickland supplied shotgun shells to Vincent Bell, who eventually pleaded guilty in the crime, and noted that a fingerprint of Strickland’s was found on Bell’s car, which was used in the getaway.

But Strickland told the judge he didn’t know the shells would be used in a murder, and said he was a frequent driver of the car because Bell didn’t have a driver’s license.

“(He) wasn’t smart enough to pass the test,” Strickland said.

Assistant Attorney General Andrew Clarke also argued that Cynthia Douglas, the lone eyewitness, identified Strickland to police multiple times, and “she had no interest in helping Mr. Strickland.”

Monday afternoon, Baker called several of Douglas’ family members to the stand. They all testified that Douglas, who was shot during the attack, was traumatized by her near-death experience, and by the idea that she caused an innocent man to spend so many years behind bars.

Pool photo / Tammy Ljungblad
The Kansas City Star
Cecile "Cookie" Simmons, sister of Cynthia Douglas, answers questions during Monday's hearing. Simmons described the night her sister, the crime's lone eyewitness, was shot.

“Through the smiles, through the kids, through the tears, and through the years, this haunted her,” said Douglas’ sister Cecile "Cookie” Simmons. “Up until the moment she died, she was still bothered by that day.”

Simmons, along with Douglas’ mother and daughter, all testified that Douglas told them she felt rushed by police at the time to identify Strickland as a shooter. “She was just traumatized,” Simmons said.

During his questioning by Baker, Strickland told the judge that he reported voluntarily to the police station after learning he was wanted for questioning because he had nothing to hide.

“I knew that the system worked,” Strickland said, “and I knew that I would be vindicated.”

Strickland also turned down multiple plea deals before his trial because he said he didn't want to say he was guilty of a crime he had nothing to do with.

“I regret cooperating with the police on any level,” he told Baker. “I should have exercised my right to remain silent.”

Monday’s hearing included opening statements and testimony from nine witnesses, all called by the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office. More witnesses are expected to testify Tuesday.

In previous conferences, Judge Welsh and attorneys have discussed the possibility of working on Thursday, which is Veterans Day, suggesting that the hearing could last through the week.

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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