Rich Sugg / The Kansas City Star via AP
Kansas City man who has been jailed for more than 40 years for three murders was released from jail Tuesday after a judge ruled he was wrongly convicted in 1979.
Kevin Strickland, 62, has always maintained that he was at home watching television and had nothing to do with the murders that happened when he was 18. He learned of the decision when news rolled across the television screen while watching a soap opera. He said the inmates started screaming.
“I’m not necessarily angry. That’s a lot. I think I created emotions that you don’t yet know,” he told reporters as he left the correctional center at the western Missouri to Cameron. “The joy, the sorrow, the fear. I’m trying to figure out how to put them together. “
He said he would like to get involved in efforts to “keep this from happening to someone else”, saying the criminal justice system “needs to be torn down and remade”.
Judge James Welsh, a retired Missouri Court of Appeal judge, ruled after a three-day evidentiary hearing requested by a Jackson County District Attorney who said the evidence used to convict Strickland has since been retracted or refuted.
Welsh wrote in his judgment that “clear and compelling evidence” has been presented which “undermines the confidence of the Court in the sentencing judgment.” He noted that there was no physical evidence linking Strickland to the crime scene and that a key witness recanted before his death.
“In these unique circumstances, the Court’s confidence in Strickland’s convictions is so shaken that it can no longer stand and the sentencing judgment must be set aside,” Welsh wrote in ordering Strickland’s immediate release.
Jackson County District Attorney Jean Peters Baker, who lobbied for his freedom, quickly dropped the criminal charges against him so he could be released.
“To say that we are extremely happy and grateful is an understatement,” she said in a statement. “It does justice – finally – to a man who has tragically suffered so much as a result of this wrongful conviction. “
But Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican candidate for the US Senate, said Strickland was guilty and had fought to keep him incarcerated.
“In this case, we stood up for the rule of law and the decision made by a jury of Mr. Strickland’s peers after hearing all the facts of the case,” Schmitt spokesman Chris Nuelle said, in a brief press release. “The court has ruled, no further action will be taken in this case.”
Governor Mike Parson, who declined Strickland’s pardon requests, simply tweeted: “The court has made its decision, we respect the decision and the Department of Corrections will immediately release Mr. Strickland.”
Strickland was convicted of the death of Larry Ingram, 21; John Walker, 20; and Sherrie Black, 22, in a Kansas City home.
Hearing of the evidence largely focused on the testimony of Cynthia Douglas, the only person to survive the shooting of April 25, 1978. She first identified Strickland as one of four men who shot at the victims and testified to them in his two trials.
Welsh wrote that she had doubts shortly after sentencing, but initially “hesitated to act because she feared facing perjury charges if she publicly recanted previously sworn statements “.
her later said she was pressured by the police to choose Strickland and tried for years to alert political and legal experts to help her prove that she had identified the wrong man, according to testimony from family, friends and a colleague at the hearing. Douglas died in 2015.
During the hearing, attorneys for the Missouri attorney general’s office argued that Strickland’s attorneys failed to provide a paper trail to prove that Douglas attempted to retract his identification from Strickland, claiming the theory was based on “hearsay, hearsay, 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 were never charged.
During his testimony, Strickland denied suggestions that he offered Douglas $ 300 to “keep his mouth shut,” and said he had never visited the house where the murders took place before. they don’t happen.
Strickland is black, and his first trial ended with a suspended jury when the only black juror, a female, demanded an acquittal. After his second trial in 1979, he was convicted by an all-white jury of one count of capital murder and two counts of second degree murder.
In May, Peters Baker announced that a examination of the case led her to believe that 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 request a hearing of the evidence in Jackson County, where Strickland was sentenced. The law allows local prosecutors to challenge convictions if they believe the accused did not commit the crime. It was the first time – and so far the only time – that a prosecutor had used the law to challenge a previous conviction.
“Even when the prosecutor is by your side, it took Mr. Strickland months and months to get home and he still had to go home in a system that will not provide him with any compensation for the 43 years that he lost, “said Tricia Rojo. Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, who stood with Strickland upon his release.
The state only allows wrongful jail payments to people cleared by DNA evidence, so Strickland is not eligible.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “I think we hope people are paying so much attention and really asking ‘What should our justice system look like?’