By Natasha Feuerstein
KANSAS CITY, MO – Kevin Strickland has spent more than 42 years in prison, and yet the real perpetrators and the sole surviving victim maintain his innocence.
The Midwest Innocence Project (MIP), working alongside the international firm, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (BCLP), have now filed a petition for a Writ of Habeas Corpus to the Missouri Supreme Court, calling for the release and exoneration of Strickland.
Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney, Jean Peters Baker, has also joined in the call for Strickland’s release and also maintains that Strickland is innocent. Baker’s office prosecuted Strickland in 1979.
MIP’s executive director, Tricia Rojo Bushnell, stated, “We are grateful to Jean Peters Baker and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Officer for their support of Mr. Strickland’s innocence and their work reviewing his case.”
She added, “The evidence of Mr. Strickland’s innocence is clear, and we applaud the prosecutor’s officer for fulfilling their duty as ministers of justice to ensure that justice is done- and in this case, doing everything possible to help exonerate an innocent man.”
Strickland was convicted of a triple homicide that occurred in 1978. He has consistently maintained his innocence throughout his lengthy incarceration.
Strickland’s initial trial resulted in a hung jury, with the sole Black juror holding out for acquittal. However, he was convicted by an all-white jury at a second trial based almost entirely on the unreliable eyewitness identification of the only surviving victim, Cynthia Douglas.
New evidence pointing to Strickland’s innocence has continued to emerge since his conviction. These include sworn statements from the actual perpetrators that declare Strickland innocent and name the fourth perpetrator who was previously unidentified that Strickland was thought to be.
Another piece of evidence that emerged in Strickland’s favor was a recantation of an identification of Strickland as one of the perpetrators from Douglas—the sole surviving victim of the incident.
“Once she became aware of her mistake, Ms. Douglas did everything she could to free Mr. Strickland and she bears no responsibility for the years Mr. Strickland has lost,” explained Bushnell.
“Mr. Strickland’s conviction was the failure of a system and the injustice of his continued incarceration harms not only him, but the families of the victims, who must continue to relive this horrible crime as we fight to correct this injustice,” added Bushnell.
Douglas knew Strickland at the time of the crimes, and did not immediately identify him as a perpetrator.
Initially, Douglas named two of the four perpetrators and told police she could not identify the other two perpetrators. Douglas only provided Strickland’s name to police after others suggested that Strickland was previously seen in the company of the known perpetrators.
Douglas’s eyewitness testimony is deeply undermined by the modern scientific understanding of cognition and memory. Douglas expressed her doubts about her identification many times and her wish to see Strickland set free, up until her death in 2015.
The sworn statements from the two known perpetrators also declare Strickland’s innocence. They even named the man for whom Strickland was mistaken.
The first of the perpetrators’ confessions came in the months following Strickland’s conviction, at perpetrator Vincent Bell’s plea hearing. Bell described the events of the incident and the shooting that took place at a house and made it clear that “Kevin Strickland wasn’t there at the house that day.”
BCLP attorney, Bob Hoffman, who also represents Strickland, said, “The truth of Mr. Strickland’s innocence was known over 42 years ago. Strickland’s case is yet one more example of how long and difficult it is to overturn a wrongful conviction. It shouldn’t be this hard.”
Strickland, BCLP, and MIP submitted his case to the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit for their review in November of 2020. After evaluating all the evidence given, the Office concluded in a letter that “[r]eliable, corroborated evidence now proves that Mr. Strickland is factually innocent of the charges for which he was convicted in 1979. In the interests of justice, Mr. Strickland’s conviction should be set aside, he should be promptly released, and he deserves public exoneration.”
The two known perpetrators served 10 years for their involvement in the 1978 murders and were released. Strickland was charged with capital murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for probation or parole for 50 years. Strickland is the only one who remains in prison.
“Innocence should be enough for an individual to be released from prison, regardless of the sentence,” said Hoffman. “We are asking the Missouri Supreme Court to clarify once and for all that our legal system cannot tolerate the continued incarceration of any innocent person.”
Natasha Feuerstein is a senior at UC Davis majoring in Political Science and minoring in Global Disease Biology. She is originally from Camden, Delaware.
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