Kevin Strickland's innocence hearing finally set to begin in Jackson County Court
After months of courtroom delays, a judge will hear evidence this week in the innocence petition of a Kansas City man who has spent 43 years in prison for a crime prosecutors now say he didn't commit.
After a long and winding legal process, Kevin Strickland’s evidentiary hearing is set for Monday and Tuesday, but could go longer.
Judge James Welsh will preside, but he won’t be the first judge to consider Kevin Strickland’s petition of innocence, and Strickland’s day in court has already been delayed twice.
“As you all know, I’m new to it and so I’m starting with a fresh outlook,” Welsh said during a conference with attorneys in October. “Anything that’s transpired I don’t know about, so you’ll have to bring me up to date on it, if it’s relevant.”
Welsh was assigned to the hearing by the Missouri Supreme Court, after Attorney General Eric Schmitt requested the recusal of all Jackson County judges from the case — an unprecedented ruling.
The Jackson County Circuit Court is the same jurisdiction that handled Strickland’s original conviction in 1979. Strickland was 18 at the time. After his first trial ended with a hung jury, he was later convicted by an all-white jury of a triple murder in south Kansas City. Strickland, who is African American, was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Now 62, Strickland has always maintained his innocence. In May, after a months-long review, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced that she agreed.
“Most importantly, though, I’m advocating that this man must be freed immediately,” she said at a press conference that month.
At the time, prosecutors in Missouri couldn’t revisit convictions like Strickland’s, but over the summer a new law gave them that power. Baker moved quickly to petition a judge.
According to Baker’s court filings, analysis as recent as last year shows fingerprints on the shotgun used in the crime are not Strickland’s, and two men who pleaded guilty to the killings have said Strickland wasn’t there.
Their affidavits are likely to be key in this week’s hearing.
Then there’s the eyewitness testimony of Cynthia Douglas, who survived the attack by playing dead, while her close friend, Sherrie Black, died right next to her.
“Cindy was never the same after that,” Eric Wesson told KCUR in October.
Wesson is the publisher of Kansas City’s historic African American newspaper, The Call, but was a reporter when Douglas approached him twice with doubts regarding the testimony she had given that helped convict Strickland. Wesson said Douglas wanted to recant her testimony.
“She knew me and trusted me from high school, and because we knew each other personally … she came and talked to me for guidance on what she should do and how she should help Kevin out,” said Wesson, who is expected to testify in court this week.
Douglas told him she was never sure Strickland was one of the shooters, and she felt rushed by investigators to identify him.
“Her thinking was cloudy,” Wesson said. “She was very traumatized by it because her and Sherrie Black were like … sisters.”
According to Wesson, Douglas tried repeatedly to contact police and prosecutors, but had a hard time getting people to listen.
In a court motion, prosecutors wrote that Douglas, “after years of torment … over what to do about the mistake," asked the Midwest Innocence Project for help in 2009. Douglas died in 2015.
Politics threaten to overshadow truth
Strickland’s situation has since become politicized.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, has said he thinks the 1979 trial was fair, and he isn’t convinced of Strickland’s innocence.
Attorney General Schmitt, a leading contender for U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt’s soon-to-be-vacant seat, has repeatedly fought efforts to free Strickland.
Schmitt’s office has asked for multiple delays, and petitioned for a new judge, leading to Welsh's assignment to the hearing. Judge Welsh has, in turn, expanded the attorney general’s role in proceedings.
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Crane, who has often led those efforts in the courtroom, has insisted his office hasn’t had enough time to gather and examine evidence, and interview the relevant witnesses.
“And we’ve tried to be cognizant of Mr. Strickland’s interest in concluding these hearings quickly, and tried to work with the other parties to get that done, and, frankly, that’s just not happened,” Crane told the judge last month.
It’s an agonizing process that has confounded Strickland, who expressed his disappointment last month.
“I hold fast to my faith that God ain’t going to let me die in this jail, but I’m losing belief that the system is going to work,” he told CBS News.
In August, while Strickland awaited a hearing, his mother died. It was the third family funeral he‘s missed while behind bars.
“There is nothing that they can do to make that right. My whole life is a memory of prison,” he said. “I don’t know anything else.”
It’s unknown when Judge Welsh will issue a ruling.