More than 42 years after his wrongful capital murder conviction in June 1979, a Missouri judge has set Kevin Strickland (pictured) free.

On November 23, 2021, Judge James Welsh granted a motion filed by Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker under a newly enacted Missouri law allowing local prosecutors to petition for the release of prisoners they believe to be innocent. No physical evidence linked Strickland to the 1978 Kansas City triple murders for which he was convicted; two other men convicted of the killings later named other participants in the offense but said Strickland was not involved; and the lone eyewitness who testified against him said she had been pressured by police to falsely implicate Strickland. Welsh agreed with Peters Baker that “clear and convincing evidence” presented at Strickland’s innocence hearing “so undermined … the judgement of conviction” that it must be set aside.

Strickland, who is Black, was capitally tried twice for the murders. The jury in his first trial deadlocked at 11-1 for conviction, with the only Black juror holding out for acquittal. Strickland was convicted of one count of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder by an all-white jury in his second trial. After he was convicted, the prosecution withdrew the death penalty from his case.

“If he had been sentenced to death, he would have been one of the wrongful executions never acknowledged to be wrongful,” DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham said.

An investigative series by the Kansas City Star in fall 2020 brought renewed attention to Strickland’s case. After conducting its own investigation, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office concluded in May 2021 that the new evidence “eviscerated” the case against Strickland and that he was “factually innocent.”

“To say we’re extremely pleased and grateful is an understatement,” Peters Baker said in a statement after the ruling. “This brings justice — finally — to a man who has tragically suffered so, so greatly as a result of this wrongful conviction.”

Speaking to reporters outside the Western Missouri Correctional Center following his release, Strickland — now 62 and in a wheelchair following several heart attacks — said he was attempting to process a range of emotions. “I’m not necessarily angry. It’s a lot,” he said. “Joy, sorrow, fear. I am trying to figure out how to put them together.” He said he would like to become involved in efforts to reform the criminal legal system to “keep this from happening to someone else.”

The Evidence in Strickland’s Case

Strickland was convicted of the April 25, 1978 shooting deaths of John Walker, Sherrie Black, and Larry Ingram. Cynthia Douglas, who was wounded in the shooting, was the lone eyewitness. On the night of the crime, she identified two men, Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins. Both of them pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and served 10 years in prison. The following day, Douglas identified Strickland as another perpetrator, but later recanted her testimony. In 2009, she contacted the Midwest Innocence Project, writing in an email, “I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused. I was the only eyewitness and things were not clear back then, but now I know more and would like to help this person if I can.”

Because Douglas died in 2015, she could not testify at Strickland’s hearing, but several friends and family members told the court that Douglas had recanted to them. Bell and Adkins have also both said Strickland was not involved in the killing. According to Bell’s 1979 testimony, Adkins was happy to see police arrest Strickland, believing it meant the police wouldn’t trace them to the crime. He reportedly told Bell, “That’s good, ‘cause they starting off wrong. They picking up the wrong man.”

Strickland rejected a plea deal and faced a possible death sentence, but he says he believed the system would acquit him. At the innocence hearing, he testified, “I wasn’t about to plead guilty to a crime I had absolutely nothing to do with. Wasn’t going to do it … at 18 years old, and I knew the system worked, so I knew that I would be vindicated, I wouldn’t be found guilty of a crime I did not commit. I would not take a plea deal and admit to something I did not do.”

Obstruction by State Officials

Missouri passed a law in April 2021 allowing local prosecutors to file motions to free prisoners they believe to be innocent. Strickland’s was the first case in which a hearing was conducted under the new law. Peters Baker filed a motion to free Strickland when the law went into effect in August. At that time, she reached out to Attorney General Eric Schmitt hoping to find a partner in “seeking the truth.” Instead, the attorney general’s office actively opposed the efforts to exonerate Strickland, asserting during the hearing that Strickland’s evidence was “hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay” and that affirming his conviction was necessary to defend “the rule of law.”

In June, more than a dozen state and local legislators asked Missouri Governor Mike Parson to pardon Strickland. Citing a backlog of more than 3,000 clemency requests, Parson took no action on Strickland’s application saying it was not “a priority.” Then, on August 4, Parson pardoned Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who had pled guilty to misdemeanor harassment and assault charges after pointing an automatic rifle and a handgun at peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrators in June 2020.

The juxtaposition of Parson’s clemency decisions drew sharp criticism from racial justice advocates. St. Louis State Rep. LaKeySha Bosley said in a statement: “While inmates like Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson have watched from prison for decades as life passed them by for crimes they did not commit, two unhinged, paranoid, delusional admitted criminals — one of them a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate — get pardoned by the governor less than a month after they pleaded guilty to pointing loaded firearms at peaceful protestors.” Local prosecutors say Johnson, who has served 26 years for murder also is innocent, but the Missouri attorney general’s office has opposed his release. Like Strickland, Johnson is Black.

Strickland’s mother died on August 21, 2021. He was unable to attend the funeral because motions filed by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office delayed the hearing that led to his release. As the hearing was underway, the attorney general’s office filed motions to limit what the court could consider to the evidence presented in the trial in which Strickland was wrongfully convicted, to remove Strickland as a party to the hearing, and to replace local prosecutors with the state attorney general’s office as the official representative of the state of Missouri in the hearing. The court rejected the motions.

The obstruction by state prosecutors is part of a nationwide pattern of state-level officials opposing the efforts of local prosecutors to redress what they perceive as miscarriages of justice in murder prosecutions. Most recently, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody filed motions to block DNA testing for two Florida death row prisoners after State Attorney Monique H. Worrell agreed to grant the testing. Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery delayed the removal of Abu-Ali Abdur’Rahman from death row for two years, after Davidson County District Attorney General Glenn Funk agreed to resentence Abdur’Rahman to life because of racial discrimination and prosecutorial misconduct in the case.

An Historically Long Wrongful Conviction

Strickland’s wrongful incarceration is one of the longest in American history. He was arrested when he was 18 years old and spent 42 years and 4 months in prison from the time of his conviction to the time of his release. The National Registry of Exonerations database of exonerations since 1989 lists just eight other cases in which exoneration took more than 42 years. Florida death-row exoneree Clifford Williams, Jr. and North Carolina death-row exoneree Charles Ray Finch, both of whom were wrongfully convicted in 1976 and exonerated in 2019, also spent more than 42 years in prison.

Although Strickland was wrongfully imprisoned for more than four decades, he will not receive any compensation from Missouri, which provides compensation only to those exonerated by DNA testing.

Kevin Strickland’s case carries a message for family members of other prisoners who are wrongfully convicted. “I’m just galactically overwhelmed,” his brother, L.R. Strickland, said. “Fight as long as you’re able to,” Strickland’s cousin, Carol Jones, told the Kansas City Star.