Kevin Strickland's fate lies in the hands of judge: 'He's betting his life on the system'
“I feel really good about the case,” Kevin Strickland told reporters as Jackson County Sheriff's officers wheeled him out of the courtroom after his third day in court.
The fate of Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man who has always said he was innocent during his 43 years in prison, is now in the hands of a judge.
On Wednesday, County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who has championed Strickland's innocence, pleaded with Judge James Welsh for Strickland's release.
“We have built into our system an ability to correct — to correct wrongs,” Baker said during her closing arguments. “[Strickland] bet his life on the system. He’s betting his life on the system still.”
But after three days of testimony that hinged on whether an eyewitness to the 1978 triple murder tried to recant, Missouri Assistant Attorney General Greg Goodwin told the judge to leave Strickland behind bars.
“What you’ve been provided over the last three days, judge, is hearsay, upon hearsay, upon hearsay,” Goodwin said. “If she wanted to recant, judge, she would have done it.”
Welsh gave no indication when he would make his ruling, saying only that it would be "in a timely fashion."
Strickland goes on the defense
Strickland took the stand on Monday while wearing his orange jailhouse jumpsuit and adamantly insisting that he had nothing to do with the killings.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with these murders,” Strickland testified on Monday. “By no means was I anywhere close to that crime scene.”
Much of the week's testimony focused on the eyewitness testimony of Cynthia Douglas, who was also the key to his original conviction. Douglas was shot in the attack but survived. Immediately after, Douglas identified two of the four shooters to police as Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins, who both eventually pleaded guilty.
Baker presented the judge with affidavits from Bell and Adkins, the two men who pleaded guilty, stating Strickland wasn’t an accomplice.
The day after the murders, Douglas picked Strickland, who she had known for more than a year, out of a police lineup.
Several witnesses called by Baker's team, including Douglas' mother, Senoria, testified that Douglas had told them she was pressured by police into choosing Strickland, and that her regret over falsely accusing Strickland affected the rest of her life.
“She said, “I picked the wrong guy, mother,’” said Senoria Douglas during emotional testimony. “One of the officers told her … ‘That’s the one that you need to pick — that’s him right there.’ And so that’s the one she picked.”
“She was very upset about it, and she was depressed about it,” Senoria Douglas said.
Strickland has been behind bars since his conviction, but has maintained his innocence for the duration. In May, after a months-long review of the case, Baker announced she agreed.
This summer, a bipartisan coalition of Missouri lawmakers passed a law giving Baker the ability to revisit cases like Strickland’s in the court that handed down the conviction.
“It is a territory in which no lawyer and no judge in this state has gone before,” Baker said on Monday during her opening arguments. “We are the first.”
On Wednesday, lawyers from Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office called Larry Gilmer to the stand. Gilmer said he was likely the first Kansas City Police Department officer to respond to the south Kansas City crime scene, and said he interviewed Douglas at a neighbor’s house.
Gilmer said Douglas identified Strickland during that encounter, but she used a nickname he didn’t recognize. If he had recognized the nickname, Gilmer testified, “he would have been arrested” the next day.
Neither Strickland’s name nor any nicknames ended up on police reports that were filed as evidence.
'This haunted her'
According to the attorney general’s office, though, Douglas never intended to recant. They played several phone calls between Douglas and an ex-husband, Ronald Richardson, who was incarcerated with Strickland at the time. In those calls, Douglas expressed consternation about the idea of revisiting the incident.
Douglas’ sister, Cecile “Cookie” Simmons, testified that hesitation could have been due to threats that Douglas told her about, that came from prosecutors who claimed she could be jailed for lying under oath if she chose to recant.
“Through the smiles, through the kids, through the tears, and through the years, this haunted her,” said Simmons. “Up until the moment she died, she was still bothered by that day.”
Richardson told the judge Douglas was at times worried about Strickland seeking revenge against her.
“She said, ‘I want to do the right thing because I want to go and correct my mistake. But I don’t want him to get out and have a bunch of animosity, and want to come after me,” Richardson said.
Strickland's fingerprints in car
Much of the original evidence in the case has been lost, but Strickland’s fingerprints were not among those lifted from the home where the murders occurred, or a shotgun used in the attack.
But one of Strickland’s prints was found on the getaway vehicle, which was seized on by the attorney general’s office.
“I’m surprised they only named one on the rearview mirror,” Strickland told the judge on Monday. The owner of the car, Vincent Bell, was Strickland’s friend and didn’t have a driver’s license.
“So I drove Vincent Bell’s car more than he did,” Strickland said.
Strickland insisted he was not driving that night, but said he did provide Bell with shotgun shells at least two weeks prior to the crime. Strickland was asked if he knew they would end up being used in a crime.
“By no means,” he testified.
As corrections officers wheeled him out of the courtroom on Wednesday — on his way back to jail — Strickland told reporters, “I feel really good about the case.”