Missouri man acquitted of 3 murders, released after 4 decades
Kansas City, Missouri — A Kansas City man sentenced to more than 40 years in prison for three murders was released Tuesday after a judge unjustly convicted him in 1979.
Kevin Strickland, 62, has always maintained that he was home watching TV and had nothing to do with the murders that occurred when he was 18. He learned of the decision when the news broke on TV while he was watching a TV series. He said the inmates started screaming.
I’m not necessarily angry. It’s a lot. “I think I’ve created feelings that you don’t all know yet,” he told reporters as he left Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron. “Joy, sadness, fear. I’m trying to figure out how to put it together.”
He said he would like to be involved in efforts “to prevent this from happening to someone else,” saying the criminal justice system “needs to be demolished and rebuilt.”
Judge James Welch, a retired judge of the Missouri Court of Appeals, ruled after a three-day evidentiary hearing requested by the Jackson County District Attorney who said the evidence used to convict Strickland has since been invalidated or disproved.
Welch wrote in his judgment that “clear and convincing evidence” was presented that would “undermine the Court’s confidence in the guilty verdict”. He noted that there was no physical evidence linking Strickland to the crime scene and that a key witness had retracted before her death.
“In these unique circumstances, the Court’s confidence in Strickland’s convictions has been so undermined that she cannot withstand, and the guilty verdict must be set aside,” Welch wrote, ordering Strickland’s immediate release.
Jackson County Attorney General Jean Peters Baker, who had pushed for his release, moved quickly to dismiss the criminal charges against him so he could be released.
“To say we are very happy and very grateful is an understatement,” she said in a statement. “This brings justice – at last – to a man who suffered so tragically as a result of this wrongful conviction.”
But Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmidt, a Republican running for Senate, said Strickland was guilty and fought to keep him in prison.
“In this case, we have defended the rule of law and the decision made by a jury of Mr Strickland’s colleagues after hearing all the facts in the case,” Schmidt spokesman Chris Noel said in a brief statement. No further action will be taken in this regard.”
Governor Mike Parson, who rejected Strickland’s clemency requests, simply tweeted: “The court has made its decision, we respect the decision, and the Department of Corrections will proceed to release Mr. Strickland immediately.”
Strickland convicted of killing Larry Ingram, 21; John Walker, 20 years old; and Sherry Black, 22, at a home in Kansas City.
The evidence hearing focused largely on testimony from Cynthia Douglas, the only person to survive the shooting on April 25, 1978. It initially identified Strickland as one of four men who had shot the victims and testified to it during his trial.
Welch wrote that she had doubts shortly after the conviction but was initially “reluctant to act because she feared she would face oath-taking charges if she publicly retracted statements previously made under oath”.
She later said she was pressured by police to pick Strickland and for years tried to alert political and legal experts to help her prove she had identified the wrong man, according to testimony during the hearing from her family, friends and co-workers. Douglas passed away in 2015.
During the hearing, Missouri Attorney General’s office attorneys argued that Strickland’s advocates did not file a paper claim that Douglas attempted to retract her identity to Strickland, saying the theory was based on “rumours, based on hearsay,”
The judge also noted that two other men convicted of the murders later insisted that Strickland was not involved. They named two other suspects who have not been charged.
During his testimony, Strickland denied suggestions that he offered Douglas $300 to “keep her mouth shut,” and said he had not visited the house where the murders took place before they occurred.
Strickland is Black, and his first pending jury trial ended when the only black juror, a woman, demanded acquittal. After his second trial in 1979, a white jury convicted him of premeditated murder and two counts of second-degree murder.
In May, Peters Baker announced that a review of the case had led her to believe Strickland was innocent.
In June, the Missouri Supreme Court refused to hear Strickland’s petition.
In August, Peters Baker used a new state law to obtain a hearing in Jackson County, where Strickland was convicted. The law allows local prosecutors to challenge convictions if they believe the defendant did not commit the crime. It was the first time — and the only time so far — that a prosecutor had used the law to fight a previous conviction.
“Even with the attorney general on your side, it has taken months and months for Mr Strickland to come home and he still has to come home to a system that will not offer him any compensation for the 43 years he lost,” said Tricia Rojo. Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, who sided with Strickland upon his release.
The state only allows wrongful prison payments to people who have been acquitted through DNA evidence, so Strickland is ineligible.
She said, “This is not justice. I think we hope that people will pay a lot of attention and really ask the next question ‘What should our justice system look like?'” “
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas, and Stafford from Liberty, Missouri.
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