KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The only eye witnesses to a 1978 triple murder in Kansas City tried to tell prosecutors years before she died that she had identified the wrong shooter, but they told her it was “too late” to recant and that she could be charged with perjury, her sister testified Tuesday.
Cecile “Cookie” Simmons testified on the second day of a hearing that could lead to the release of Kevin Strickland, who has served 43 years in prison for a triple murder that many people, including current Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, believe he did not commit.
In testimony on Monday, Strickland, who is now 62, strongly denied being involved in the crime, which he has maintained since he was arrested and convicted in 1979.
Peters Baker announced in May that she and several other legal and political leaders believe Strickland was wrongly convicted. In August, she called for Strickland’s exoneration by using a new state law that allows local prosecutors to challenge convictions if they believe the defendant did not commit the crime.
The evidentiary hearing was delayed several times after motions filed by the Missouri Attorney General’s office. Attorney General Eric Schmidt, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, has said he believes Strickland is guilty.
Simmons’ sister, Cynthia Douglas, was injured but survived the shootings that killed three of her friends at a home in Kansas City on April 25, 1978. Her identification of Strickland, as being at the scene was a primary factor in his conviction.
Simmons said Tuesday that Douglas told her she knew two of four suspects, Vincent Bell, 21, and Kilm Adkins, 19, but did not know the other two suspects.
She picked Strickland, who was 18 at the time, out of a lineup the next day and later told people she was pressured by police to choose him, Simmons testified. Douglas’ mother, sister and a former co-worker gave similar testimony on Monday.
Years later, when Douglas told county prosecutors about her mistaken identification, they told her they were “not going to go back to court” over it and that she could be charged with perjury, according to Simmons.
Simmons said Douglas had nightmares and was sickened by her actions but she never took back her recantation before she died in 2015.
Bell and Adkins later served prison sentences for their roles in the murders. They both have said that Strickland was not involved in the crimes.
“Cindy never got her justice,” Simmons said Tuesday, noting that the two suspects Bell and Adkins identified were never arrested.
During cross-examination from Gregory Goodwin with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, Simmons acknowledged she was not with her sister when she contacted various officials.
Douglas’ ex-husband, Ronald Richardson, also testified Tuesday that she told him she had been wrong to identify Strickland. Richardson, who is currently in prison, was with Douglas for 24 years and married to her for 15 years.
Douglas told him she was hesitant to revive Strickland’s case because other families were involved and she was afraid Strickland might retaliate. Richardson told her said Strickland was more likely to be grateful if she recanted her identification, he testified.
Richardson said he and Strickland are imprisoned together but they are not friends and Strickland has never promised him anything for his testimony.
Assistant Attorney General Christine Krug noted Richardson’s lengthy prison record, which started with stealing in 1994 and include convictions for drugs, forgery and sex charges. She also said the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office did not find him credible when he was prosecuted for sex crimes and robbery.
Richardson responded that he didn’t understand what his crimes had to do with Strickland’s case. And he said he watched Douglas suffer for years because she identified the wrong person.
“I’ve lived with the girl for 24 years, and I’ve seen her slowly deteriorate and I’ve seen the hurt and the pain that the girl went through for 24 years,” Richardson said. “So don’t tell me all the things I did. I broke her heart. With the things I’ve done, I broke the girl’s heart. Y’all broke her spirit.”