Kevin Strickland is free from prison after 43 years, as Missouri judge overturns his conviction
"The Court's confidence in Strickland's conviction is so undermined that it cannot stand," the judge wrote. Strickland's wrongful imprisonment for nearly 43 years is among the country's longest.
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A judge has set aside the conviction of Kevin Strickland and ordered him immediately discharged from custody.
“I didn’t think this day was going to come,” Strickland told reporters outside the prison in Cameron, Missouri. “I mean, not before I got this legal team, I didn’t.”
In a ruling Tuesday, Judge James Welsh wrote that Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker had "met her burden of providing clear and convincing evidence that undermines the Court's confidence in the judgment of conviction.”
The ruling comes two weeks after the conclusion of oral arguments and witness testimony in Jackson County Circuit Court.
“I was the easy mark, and the police took advantage of it,” Strickland said. “I really appreciate (Judge Welsh) taking his time to listen and understand what really happened in 1978.”
Strickland, who is 62, has spent more than 43 years in prison for a triple murder that Baker said in May he didn’t commit. Her conclusion came after a months-long investigation into new evidence that emerged in the years since Strickland’s 1979 conviction.
“No physical evidence implicated Strickland in the triple homicide,” Welsh wrote. “Instead, Strickland was convicted solely on the eyewitness testimony of (Cynthia) Douglas, who subsequently recanted her statements identifying him as one of the four perpetrators.”
During Strickland’s three-day innocence hearing, Baker and Strickland’s attorneys also presented affidavits from two men who pleaded guilty to the murders, Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins. Both asserted Strickland wasn’t an accomplice.
"To say we're extremely pleased and grateful is an understatement," Baker said in a news release Tuesday. "This brings justice — finally — to a man who has tragically suffered so so greatly as a result of this wrongful conviction."
Baker was aided in her appeals for Strickland’s release by a new state law enacted this summer. The rule gave prosecutors the ability to revisit wrongful convictions in the courts that handed them down.
“This was a great act of courage by Jean Peters Baker. The rest of it sort of speaks for itself,” said Edward “Chip” Robertson, a former Missouri Supreme Court chief justice who was brought in by Baker as a special assistant prosecutor in the case.
Strickland’s incarceration is the longest wrongful imprisonment in Missouri, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, and among the longest in the country. He was arrested by the Kansas City Police Department on April, 26, 1978, and convicted on June 29, 1979, when he was 18.
Strickland was being held at the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri. He was released on Tuesday afternoon, and greeted by his family, legal team, supporters and a gaggle of media.
Strickland told reporters outside the prison that he learned of the judge’s decision from a news break while he was watching a soap opera inside.
“Other inmates started hollering, and I heard them beating on walls and carrying on,” he said.
Strickland has always maintained his innocence. But in October, he told CBS News he was beginning to lose faith in the criminal justice system’s ability to correct his wrongful conviction.
“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.”
When a reporter at Strickland’s release asked what he planned to do next, Strickland chuckled and said he didn’t know.
“I think I've created some emotions that you all don't know about just yet. … Happy, joy, sorrow, fear — I'm trying to figure out how to put them all together,” he said, “I’m not necessarily angry — it’s a lot.”
Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who opposed Strickland's exoneration, said, “In this case, we defended the rule of law and the decision that a jury of Mr. Strickland's peers made after hearing all the facts in the case. The Court has spoken, no further action will be taken in this matter."
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, of Kansas City, wrote: “Although no one can return the 43 years that were stolen from Mr. Strickland by a broken legal system, today’s decision is a reminder that, together, we can create the reform necessary to right the wrongs of the past and implement a criminal justice system that works for all Americans.”
Strickland is the first inmate found innocent by the Jackson County prosecutor’s Conviction Review Unit, which works to prevent, identify, and fix false convictions.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, more than 80 such review units exist across the country, with three in Missouri and one in Kansas.
Strickland, though, is unlikely to be compensated for any of the time he spent in prison, because his original conviction, and his subsequent exoneration, rely on an eyewitness.
“Obviously we're ecstatic that Mr. Strickland's home,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project, which has helped handle Strickland’s case. “But I think it does show just how incredibly difficult this process is. Even when the prosecutor is on your side, it took months and months for Mr. Strickland to come home.”
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt intervened in Strickland’s innocence hearing several times, and was successful in delaying the proceedings at least twice.
The state of Missouri only compensates a narrow slice of prisoners exonerated through DNA evidence, according to Sean O’Brien, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law and founding board member of the Midwest Innocence Project, which has helped handle Strickland’s legal defense.
In the fraction of cases that do qualify, exonerees receive $50 for each day of post-conviction imprisonment, and only up to $36,000 a year.
“The state is aggressive about protecting the taxpayer money from judgment by exonerated people,” O’Brien told KCUR in June. “You can count on one hand, the number of people who have qualified for compensation under the statute.”
In contrast, a 2018 Kansas law awards exonerees $65,000 per year of wrongful conviction, $25,000 for each year of time wrongfully spent on parole, and non-monetary benefits like housing and tuition assistance, financial literacy training, counseling and expungement of the conviction.
It’s one of the strongest compensations rules in the country, according to the Midwest Innocence Project, which has set up a GoFundMe account for people looking to help support Strickland after his release.