KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker is calling for the release of Missouri inmate Kevin Strickland, saying he was wrongly convicted in a triple murder 43 years ago in Kansas City.
“All those who have reviewed the evidence in recent months agree: Kevin Strickland deserves to be exonerated,” Baker said Monday. “This is a profound error we must correct now.”
At a news conference Monday, Baker joined Strickland’s attorneys in detailing how Strickland’s wrongful conviction has come to light and why they are advocating for Strickland’s release.
“I find this mistake in this system to be profound, to be one that I should take every ounce of energy I have to correct,” Baker said.
Earlier Monday, Tricia Rojo Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence Project and Robert J. Hoffman of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner filed a petition asking the Missouri Supreme Court to order the 61-year-old’s immediate release.
“It has taken over four decades, 40 years to get to this day, but while justice has been delayed we don’t believe it will be denied,” Bushnell said. “We believe Mr. Strickland is innocent and must come home.”
On behalf of the prosecutor’s office, Baker announced that an Amicus Brief is being filed with the Missouri Supreme Court in support of Hoffman’s petition, as well as a letter to Hoffman detailing the results of a review by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office.
The case against Strickland, the review found, relied greatly on the testimony of a woman who witnessed the murders.
The prosecutor’s office concluded that the witness, now deceased, sincerely wished and attempted to recant her identification of Strickland at trial.
“Keeping him incarcerated now on a jury verdict, where the jury heard none of this convincing exculpatory evidence, serves no conceivably just purpose,” Baker and Chief Deputy Daniel M. Nelson stated in their letter to Strickland’s attorneys.
The witness, Cynthia Douglas, was a young woman in 1978 who was traumatized herself in the triple murder, the letter explained. She witnessed the murders of her three friends and was shot herself on that day.
Douglas immediately identified two of the suspects, Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins. She didn’t name Strickland until the following day and only after her sister’s boyfriend suggested Strickland might be involved.
Douglas made it known she knew she was wrong in naming Strickland as a suspect after Strickland’s trial. That was a mistake she maintained for years until her death.
Strickland has maintained his innocence since 1978. His co-defendants admitted their guilt, and they also maintained Strickland did not take part. They even named an alternative suspect.
In April, Baker and her staff met with the primary family members of victims Larry Ingram, Sherrie Black and John Walker. All expressed that they still, decades later, suffered from the trauma related to losing their loved ones. They were surprised by the news that Strickland was not guilty, yet they believed the justice system has an obligation to release anyone wrongly accused.
Baker also met with a member of victim Cynthia Douglas’ family.
For a variety of reasons, including Strickland representing himself on appeal, the full picture of this error of justice was not made clear until recent months. Douglas sent an email to Midwest Innocence Project in February 2009, saying she was seeking to help someone wrongfully accused in 1978.
“I was the only witness and things were not clear back then, but now I know more and would like to help this person if I can,” she wrote.
The prosecutor’s review – initiated after Hoffman contacted the office in late-November 2020 and a Kansas City Star article on Sept. 27, 2020 — concluded that Douglas’ email was a true recantation. Three other persons close to her, including her mother and ex-husband, submitted affidavits supporting Douglas’ desire to recant and right the record.
The judge who presided over the trial, as well as the lead prosecutor on the case, Jim Humphrey, are both deceased. Another member of the trial team — James Bell, now an attorney in private practice –reviewed the new evidence and stated that it indicates that Strickland should be set free.
“If Jim Humphrey were alive and was made aware of Cynthia’s efforts to recant, he would be leading the effort to get Kevin Strickland free,” Bell said.
The presiding judge of the 16th Circuit, J. Dale Youngs, stated that on behalf of the Court he concurred that the conviction should be set aside and he agreed that the evidence shows Strickland’s actual innocence.
“I don’t know how you can ever make anyone whole for all of that, but what we can do is acknowledge it and at least bring him home and make sure we end the unjust incarceration,” Bushnell said.