KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A judge ruled Tuesday that after more than 40 years behind bars, Kevin Strickland should be freed.
Judge James Welsh ruled that Strickland’s conviction should be set aside and that Strickland be immediately released from custody. He was convicted in a 1978 triple murder and was serving his sentence at a prison in Cameron, Missouri.
Strickland was released Tuesday afternoon and said he’s still in disbelief, trying to process that he’s a free man.
“It’s a lot. It’s a lot,” he said. “I think I’ve created emotions that you all don’t know about just yet.”
His imprisonment is now the longest known wrongful conviction in Missouri history, leaving Strickland a bit angry with the justice system.
“It needs to be torn down and redone,” he said. “From the arresting officer to the presiding judge, I mean it don’t work. It worked here in the long run, but it took 43 years.”
“It does show how incredibly difficult this process is,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, Strickland’s attorney and executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project. “Even when the prosecutor is on your side, it took months and months for Mr. Strickland to come home.”
Strickland thanked his attorneys and the Jackson County prosecutor for fighting for him. He said if it weren’t for them and the judge, he’d still be behind bars.
“I really appreciate him taking his time to listen and understand what really happened in 1978,” he said.
After a hearing earlier this month, the judge concluded that prosecutors met the burden of providing convincing evidence that undermines Strickland’s conviction.
The judge also pointed out that there was no physical evidence that connected Strickland to the murders and that he was convinced solely on eyewitness testimony. That eyewitness later recanted her statements and said she misidentified Strickland. Two other men convicted in the murders also testified that Strickland was not part of the crime.
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.
Strickland, who is now 62, has always maintained he was home watching television on the night of April 25, 1978, when the shootings occurred, and has always denied that he was involved in the killings.
A new Missouri law allowed Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to file a motion to have convictions thrown out with clear and convincing evidence.
After Welsh’s ruling, Peters Baker issued the following statement: “To say we’re extremely pleased and grateful is an understatement. This brings justice — finally — to a man who has tragically suffered so so greatly as a result of this wrongful conviction.”
The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed all criminal charges against Strickland following the judge’s ruling.
Peters Baker did not want to speak on camera but said she wants to promote Strickland’s GoFundMe page because he won’t be compensated for his wrongful conviction. The crowdfunding campaign to support Strickland after his release has raised more than $100,000.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas also issued a statement following the news of Strickland’s release:
Kevin Strickland will be freed. Praise the Lord! My heart breaks that his mother never got the chance to see him free, but I am heartened that we have justice. My thanks to the Midwest Innocence Project, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters-Baker, and all who fought for Kevin.
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.Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas
The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which has repeatedly challenged Strickland’s push for freedom, released its own statement.
“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. The Court has spoken, no further action will be taken in this matter,” spokesman Chris Nuelle said.