JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Jackson County’s prosecutor is asking a judge to exonerate a man who’s been in prison for more than 40 years after a new Missouri law went into effect allowing attorneys to ask a judge to reverse a case.
Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker isn’t the only one pushing for Kevin Strickland’s freedom.
Two days after Senate Bill 53 went into effect, dozens of demonstrators from across the state and even the country rallied outside of the Missouri Capitol on Monday, demanding justice for Lamar Johnson and Kevin Strickland.
Those attending the rally said the two Missourians were wrongfully convicted and should be released.
“These folks are absolutely innocent and never should have been convicted in the first place,” said Jamal Rogers, member of Organization for Black Struggles. “We have a system where we have elected prosecutors and those prosecutors can’t work with the state prosecutors.”
Rogers was one of a handful of advocates that spoke Monday on the lawn of the Capitol, across from the Missouri Supreme Court building. Demonstrators chanted, “Let them out,” speaking of Strickland and Johnson.
Strickland was arrested in 1978, accused of killing three people in Kansas City. The killings occurred when a group of assailants ransacked a Kansas City home. Larry Ingram, 21; John Walker, 20; and Sherrie Black, 22, were fatally shot. Cynthia Douglas, the only eye witness, was wounded but pretended to be dead.
For decades, two men who pleaded guilty in the killings swore Strickland was not with them and two other accomplices during the killings. Douglas later said detectives pressured her into identifying Strickland as the shooter. She tried to recant for years before her death in 2015.
Peters Baker filed a motion Monday to free Kevin Strickland from a Missouri prison after 43 years.
“Most of us have heard the famous quotation that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Kevin Strickland stands as our own example of what happens when a system set to be just, just gets it terribly wrong,” she wrote.
“The Missouri General Assembly and Gov. Parson deserve credit for creating a new legal avenue for a local prosecutor to seek relief. Making it possible for an officer of the court to stand before a judge and argue to correct a grave wrong is a system of justice we can all stand behind.
“We look forward to presenting our evidence in the same courtroom where Mr. Strickland was convicted.”
This comes after a new state law, Senate Bill 53, went into effect over the weekend, allowing prosecutors to ask a judge to overturn or revisit wrongful convictions.
Over in St. Louis, Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner’s conviction integrity unit found dozens of errors in the original prosecution of Johnson, including a key witness saying police forced him to identify Johnson as the killer.
Johnson was accused of the October 1994 murder of Marcus Boyd in an apparent drug deal gone bad. Johnson was 20 years old at the time of the crime. He was convicted in 1995 on the testimony of one eyewitness.
Two other men allegedly confessed to the killing in Johnson’s case.
“We have to make our citizens, particularly our voters, understand that because we have folks, we have put in office to do the job of justice and they have not been doing that,” Rogers said. “On behalf of the people of Missouri, we apologize for you being robbed of your life.”
Marvin Cotton Jr. drove 12 hours from Detriot, Michigan for Monday’s rally. He’s a member of the National Organization of Exonerees.
“They are incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, and they are in prison suffering right now, so I’m here to help give a voice for them for people to listen,” Cotton said.
Cotton himself was in prison for nearly 20 years for a crime he said he didn’t commit.
“I was convicted in 2001,” Cotton said. “I was convicted of first-degree murder and felony of a firearm. I was sentenced to natural life without the possibility of parole.”
He said he wrote hundreds of letters to every organization and filed two dozen appeals while in prison.
“The moment that people start to believe in you, that very moment your days get longer and harder,” Cotton said.
Eleven months ago, his charges were dismissed, and he was exonerated.
“I know that those guys are really suffering because that’s what I went through,” Cotton said. “You don’t understand how people believe in you, yet you’re still sitting in prison.”
Last month, Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office said Strickland was guilty of the three murders and asked a judge to deny freeing him from prison. Schmitt’s office said Monday it had no comment on Johnson’s case.
Demonstrators delivered 35,000 petitions to the attorney general’s office Monday, asking for Johnson and Strickland to be exonerated.
In a statement Monday, Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said:
“Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson are innocent men who should have never been put behind bars in the first place. Every day they remain incarcerated is another day justice is denied. We must act now to correct the wrongs of the past and free these innocent men and others like them throughout our state. I urge the attorney general to help ensure wrongfully convicted individuals find the freedom they so rightfully deserve.”
Another Democratic St. Louis Senator, Steven Roberts, sent a letter to Schmitt saying, “Today is a great day and the beginning of righting those wrongs.”