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After 43 years in a Missouri prison, Kevin Strickland's braided hair could be the key to his freedom

Pool photo / Tammy Ljungblad
The Kansas City Star
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker holds up a document as she questions Kevin Strickland during his innocence hearing in Kansas City. Part of Baker's case in favor of his exoneration centers on Strickland's hairstyle in 1978.

The Kansas City man has spent 43 years behind bars for a crime prosecutors now say he didn’t commit. A judge is considering whether to set him free, and Strickland’s exoneration, at least partially, depends on his hair.

Since May, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has said Kevin Strickland, who is African American, is innocent of the triple murder that put him behind bars in 1978.

She laid out her arguments for his exoneration during Strickland's innocence hearing last week, and one of her points involved his braids.

“You don’t have to know a lot about Black hair, but you have to know a little to know these are not fresh braids,” Baker told Judge James Welsh during her closing arguments.

She was referring to Strickland’s booking photo, taken the day after the murders.

In the mug shot, Strickland’s hair is in about 10 or 12 sections, each braided into a plait about the size of a pinky finger. The lines between each section, where the scalp is exposed, are fuzzy-looking.

Midwest Innocence Project
Kevin Strickland's booking photo, taken the day after the murders for which he was convicted, shows him wearing braids. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has argued the condition of his braids are proof that Strickland is innocent, because a witness testified that the man wielding a shotgun during the attack was wearing his hair "natural."

All this matters because the witness who said Strickland was at the crime scene told police he was wearing his hair “natural” — that is, in a short Afro.

According to the police report filed the day after the murders, the witness, Cynthia Douglas, told authorities that “the only difference in (Strickland’s) physical appearance at this time … is the clothing he is wearing and he now has his hair braided.”

That little detail — that Strickland's hair was natural on Tuesday night, but braided by Wednesday morning — is incredibly important, says retired Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, especially considering Strickland was originally convicted by an all-white jury, and the judge previously overseeing his innocence hearing is African American.

That judge, Kevin Harrell, was taken off the case after an appeal from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt resulted in the recusal of all Jackson County judges.

“There is no question that a … Black person raised in a Black community, who was either a judge, or an attorney on either side, or a juror, would absolutely know right away that something was wrong,” said Hazzard Cordell, who was the first African American woman to sit on the Superior Court of Northern California.

Hazzard Cordell recently wrote a book, called “Her Honor,” about the strengths and flaws of the criminal legal system.

In the book, she writes about the first case she ever heard, as a pro tem judge while she was still assistant dean of Stanford Law. The case was a small-claims dispute between two Black women.

“One was the hair stylist, and the other was the person who received the style,” Hazzard Cordell said, “and she would not pay the hairstylist because she felt that her cornrows were not done well.”

So, Hazzard Cordell asked the litigants if she could touch and inspect the evidence in question.

“If the braiding was done well, then there wouldn't be a lot of hair outside of the braids,” she said. “It wouldn't look fuzzy-looking, it would look very neat and very clean. And her hair was not neat and clean.”

Hazzard Cordell ruled that a partial payment was in order.

The experience, she said, drove home the importance of representational diversity on the bench.

According to data from the American Constitution Society, just 2% of judges in Kansas are women of color, and 9% are men of color. In Missouri, a 2019 report by the state’s courts administrator found 3% of judges there were women of color, and only 5% were men of color.

“If this case had … come before any of these other judges — especially, most of them were white males — they wouldn't have had a clue,” Hazard Cordell said.

How new growth happens

Luke X. Martin
KCUR 89.3
Glynnis Smith, left, and her sister Shelly have been braiding hair professionally for more than 15 years. They said the key to figuring out how old Strickland's braids were after his arrest is how much new hair growth there is around the base of his plaits.

Shelly and Glynnis Smith are sisters from Guyana who have been braiding hair in Kansas City, Kansas, for more than 15 years. Their shop, near 43rd Avenue and Mission Road, is called Braid Heaven.

After taking a look at Strickland’s booking photo, the sisters estimated the braids to be about a week old.

“At least a week,” Shelly Smith said. “And the reason why I would say at least a week is because … you can see the plait growing away from the scalp. So that’s new growth, and you cannot have new growth within 24 hours.”

But what about the "fuzzy-looking" hair surrounding Strickland’s braids? Glynnis Smith said it can be misleading — even a new braid job can be marred.

“You can frizz it up,“ she said. “You can pull a few strands out and make it look frizzy, but you cannot create new growth. That’s just a natural process.”

Strickland’s case, of course, is about more than just hair. There’s the lack of fingerprints putting him at the scene, and the two men who pleaded guilty to the murders saying Strickland wasn’t there.

County prosecutors also said the woman who identified Strickland in that lineup wanted to recant. For years until her death in 2015, Cynthia Douglas considered her testimony against him a mistake.

Several witnesses at last week’s innocence hearing, including Douglas' mother, Senoria, told Judge Welsh that Douglas said she was pressured by police into choosing Strickland, and that her regret over falsely accusing him affected the rest of her life.

According to a member of the prosecutor's staff, it was Jean Peters Baker who brought Strickland’s braids to the fore. Years ago, Baker, who is white, learned how to braid the hair of a family member who is Black.

What she learned back then could end up having major implications for Kevin Strickland.

Pool photo / Tammy Ljungblad
The Kansas City Star
Kevin Strickland sits next to Tricia Rojo Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project, during his innocence evidentiary hearing at the Jackson County Courthouse in Kansas City on Nov. 8, 2021 . Strickland, who still wears his hair in plaits, testified that he learned how to braid his own hair after being incarcerated.

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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