By NICK SLOAN, ANGIE RICONO
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (KCTV) — A judge has freed Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man who spent over 40 years in prison for a triple murder he denied having any involvement with.
The ruling is a culmination of months filled with legal procedures and on and off again court hearings.
This is a developing story. Stay tuned to KCTV5.com and KCTV5 News for reaction. Here’s a background of the case.
THE ORIGINAL CONVICTION
It took two trials, but Strickland was convicted in the April 25th, 1978 fatal shootings of John Walker, Sherrie Black and Larry Ingram.
The first trial ended in a hung jury when one juror determined Strickland should be acquitted. A second trial was held and he was convicted of one county of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder.
Proponents of Strickland’s release point to the fact that it was an all-white jury in the second trial that convicted him.
Strickland, who was 18 at the time, told authorities he was at home watching television at the time of the three murders.
A CASE RECONSIDERED
Those advocating for Strickland’s freedom, including Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, points to multiple factors.
Cynthia Douglas, a survivor of the shootings, reportedly recanted her identification of Strickland being at the scene of the shooting. Douglas passed away years before this year’s events, but her family testified at the evidentiary hearing.
Two other men who were convicted in the case said Strickland was not at the scene.
LEGAL ROUTE TO FREEING STRICKLAND OPENS UP
This summer, the Missouri General Assembly passed a wide-ranging criminal justice reform package that saw bipartisan approval and was signed into law by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson.
The bill banned chokeholds, allowed Kansas City police officers to live outside of city limits, create a use of force database and a number of other provisions related to the treatment of inmates and mental health and stress management for police officers.
One critical item included in the bill allowed a prosecuting or circuit attorney the ability to receive a hearing if they believe an individual has been wrongfully convicted.
On Aug. 30, Baker announced that she took that formal legal action to free Strickland.
“Most of us have heard the famous quotation that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Baker said. “Kevin Strickland stands as our own example of what happens when a system set to be just, just gets it terribly wrong.”
The move came after the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear Strickland’s petition in June. Gov. Parson also refused to issue a pardon for Strickland, saying he wasn’t convinced Strickland was innocent.
A Sept. 2 hearing was delayed after Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt requested more time for the court hear motions his office filed.
Among Schmitt’s requests were all 16th Circuit judges in Jackson County be recused from presiding over the hearing. The Missouri Supreme Court on Sept. 30 sided with Schmitt on this issue, leading to another delayed hearing.
Retired Missouri Appeals Court Judge James Welsh set Nov. 8 as the hearing date after he heard arguments from Strickland’s attorneys and Schmitt’s office. Schmitt’s office argued it needed additional time.
The continual delays meant Strickland’s mother passed before his hearing. That was something families pointed out during the hearing.
As he did for over 40 years, Strickland again said he did not commit the murders — this time during an evidentiary hearing that began on Nov. 8.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with these murders,” he said. “By no means was I anywhere close to the crime scene.”
Also testifying in Strickland’s favor was the family of Cynthia Douglas. Douglas’ daughter, mother and sister all said she identified the wrong shooter and was haunted by her misidentification.
Senoria Douglas, Cynthia Douglas’ mother, said that police put pressure on her daughter to identify Strickland.
The Attorney General’s office argued that evidence does exist that Strickland helped commit the crimes.
Andrew Clarke, an assistant prosecutor in Schmitt’s office, pointed to a finger-print of Strickland’s being found on a car that was used in the night of the shooting. The vehicle belonged to Vincent Bell, who pleaded guilty to the murders.
Strickland responded that he did drive the car for Bell and said he was surprised more of his fingerprints were not found on the car.
He also testified that he gave Bell shotgun shells weeks before the murders. He said Bell told him he wanted to test a shotgun. Strickland said he did not know they would be used in the killings.
Clark questioned the credibility of some witnesses including Douglas’ ex-husband, Ron Richardson.
Richardson was convicted of sodomy involving a 15-year-old girl.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office played a recent prison phone call in which Richardson speculates with a cousin that he will help the Midwest Innocence Project with the Strickland case and then they can help him with his sodomy conviction. Richardson apologized in court and admitted no such deal exists.
Also at focus in the evidentiary hearing was an email sent by Cynthia Douglas to the Midwest Innocence Project.
“I am seeking info on how to help someone that wrongfully accused,” the email starts.
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office questioned the authenticity of the email, pointing to records custodians the IT direct testifying the email can no longer be traced to where Cynthia Douglas worked.
Another detail that may help decide Strickland’s fate was his hair that night.
His mugshot shows his hair was styled in braids. Prosecutors trying to free him point out it was messy and not tight, meaning the braids were likely older.
Cynthia Douglas said the other gunman had a natural hairstyle.
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