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Kevin Strickland to be released from prison as judge vacates conviction

After more than 40 years behind bars, Kevin Strickland will finally go free Tuesday after a judge ruled his conviction could not stand, exonerating the man. 

The push to release Strickland from prison has been a lengthy one: Jackson County prosecutors were recently able to review the case based on a new state law that gives a prosecuting or circuit attorney the ability to file a motion to vacate or set aside a judgment if information arises to suggest an individual was wrongly convicted. 

On Tuesday, Jackson County Circuit Judge James Welsh pointed to the conviction’s reliance on testimony from a witness who had since recanted and dismissed all charges against Strickland.

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

Strickland, now 62, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a 1978 triple homicide. The case largely hinged on testimony from a witness who named Strickland, who is Black, but later recanted her testimony. Two other men who pleaded guilty to their involvement in the killings also said Strickland was innocent. 

“For 42 years, Kevin Strickland has been innocent. Now, for the first time, he will be free. When I sat down with prosecutors and advocates to write the Motion to Vacate provision of Senate Bill 53/60, we did so to fix a broken system and set innocent people free,” Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo told The Missouri Times. “Today, Kevin Strickland will walk out of jail a free man to be reunited with his family and friends because of this bill. I want to thank The Midwest Innocence Project for their tireless efforts. Without a doubt, there is more to do to fix our broken judicial system, but today is a monumental step forward for justice in Missouri.”

“Finally, the freedom denied to Kevin Strickland for more than four decades has been granted as the law we wrote and passed will set him free,” Sen. Brian Williams, who co-sponsored the new law in the upper chamber, said. “Next, it will do the same for Lamar Johnson & others wrongly imprisoned in Missouri.”

Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office opposed efforts to overturn the conviction, though a spokesman said it would not oppose Welsh’s verdict.

“In this case, we defended the rule of law and the decision that a jury of Mr. Strickland’s peers made after hearing all of the facts in the case,” Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, told The Missouri Times. “The court has spoken, no further action will be taken in this matter.”

“My heart breaks that his mother never got the chance to see him free, but I am heartened that we have justice,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas said on social media. “We welcome Kevin Strickland back to Kansas City. Our community owes him more than we can imagine and we commit to doing all we can to support him.”

Despite support from officials in Jackson County, the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear Strickland’s case earlier this year. A bipartisan group of lawmakers advocated for a pardon, but Gov. Mike Parson did not move on the request. 

“Somebody’s got to take responsibility one way or the other on this. Are you going to let the guy out or are you not? He’s been tried, and he’s been convicted under the laws of the state, and right now that’s the way I view that,” Parson said on an episode of “This Week in Missouri Politics” in October. “I talk to people all the time; we’ve pardoned people before, I’ve met them, you like the people and everything — but you still have to remember there’s victims out there that are part of the process too, so you have to take everything into consideration.”

Parson received criticism from Democrats for his inaction in the case amid his pardon of the McCloskeys earlier this year. 

The Republican executive said on social media his office respected the court’s decision.

Congresswoman Cori Bush joined demonstrators at a rally in support of Strickland and other detainees on the Capitol grounds in August, urging Parson and Schmitt to exonerate them. Bush previously told The Missouri Times the state’s inaction was a “direct violence on our community.”

House Minority Floor Leader Crystal Quade pointed to an online fundraiser for Strickland hosted by the Midwest Innocence Project while Democratic lawmakers noted the state does not have a dedicated fund for those freed after a wrongful conviction.  

Cover image: Midwest Innocence Project