KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The fate of a Kansas City man who has been in prison for more than 40 years for a triple murder that a prosecutor and many others believe he did not commit is now up to a judge.
An evidentiary hearing to determine whether enough evidence exists to exonerate Kevin Strickland in the 1978 murders ended Wednesday. Judge James Welsh said he would consider additional paperwork and evidence from the attorneys and make a determination in a “timely fashion.”
Strickland told reporters after the hearing that he felt “really good” about his chances. “I’d say about 80%” chance of being exonerated, he said.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in closing arguments Wednesday that Strickland was guilty of hanging out with the people who committed the murders, but her review of the case convinced her Strickland’s conviction in 1979 was a horrible mistake.
She also noted that Strickland had turned down several offers of plea deals, and risked being sentenced to death, because he refused to plead guilty to something he didn’t do.
“He turned down multiple deals, two important deals, in this case — and he bet his life on this system. He’s betting his life on this system, still,” she said.
An attorney for the Missouri attorney general’s office said suggestions that the only survivor of the killings had recanted her identification of Strickland as the shooter were only hearsay. Attorney Gregory Goodwin compared the argument to an REO Speedwagon song.
“Heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another… may have been good enough for REO Speedwagon, but it’s not good enough for a court of law,” Goodwin said.
Strickland, who is now 62, has always maintained he was home watching television on the night of April 25, 1978, when the shootings occurred. In testimony on Monday, he again strongly denied that he was involved in the killings.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with these murders. By no means was I anywhere close to that crime scene,” Strickland said.
Strickland, a Black man, was convicted in the deaths of Larry Ingram, 21; John Walker, 20; and Sherrie Black, 22, in Kansas City. His first trial ended in a hung jury when the only Black juror held out for 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.
Much of the testimony during this week’s hearing centered on Cynthia Douglas, who was shot along with the three victims but survived by pretending to be dead.
Douglas testified during Strickland’s trial that he was one of four men who committed the crime. But Douglas later realized she had identified the wrong man and spent years trying to get the attention of politicians and legal authorities to recant her statement, according to testimony from several relatives and friends.
Her mother, daughter, sister, ex-husband and a co-worker all testified that Douglas felt guilty and depressed about identifying Strickland for many years before she died in 2015.
Baker’s office said Douglas sent an email to the Midwest Innocence Project in 2009 with the subject line, “Wrongfully charged.”
“I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused,” the email stated. “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.”
Two other men convicted in the killings later insisted that Strickland wasn’t at the crime scene and named two other possible suspects who were never charged, The Kansas City Star reported.
Attorneys for the attorney general’s office tried to cast doubt on whether Douglas actually tried to recant her statement and suggested the email she sent to the Innocence Project could have been written by someone else using Douglas’ email.
Peters Baker announced in May that she and other legal and political leaders believed Strickland was wrongfully convicted. In August, she used a new state law to seek the evidentiary hearing for Strickland.
The hearing was delayed for months as Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office filed several motions, including one that successfully led to all judges in the 16th Circuit Court in Jackson County being recused from presiding over the hearing because the circuit’s presiding judge said he agreed that Strickland should be exonerated.
Schmitt, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, said Strickland was guilty. Gov. Mike Parson also declined requests for clemency for Strickland.