KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The issue of Kevin Strickland's innocence will again head to court Friday under a new judge.
The Missouri Supreme Court ordered a new judge in the case Sept. 30 after Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office successfully argued that comments Jackson County Presiding Judge Dale Youngs made about the Strickland case, while not improper, may have pierced the veil of judicial impartiality.
The case was assigned on Oct. 1 to retired Judge James E. Welsh. He previously served as a Liberty Municipal Court judge (1983-85), Clay County Circuit Court judge (1985-2007) and on the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District (2007-2018) before reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 in May 2018.
The 73-year-old Welsh, a native of Brookfield, Missouri, presided Wednesday over a first virtual case management conference, the first hearing since the case was removed from Jackson County District Court's oversight.
Parties for both Strickland and the attorney general argued over the admissibility of some evidence into court.
Strickland's team also contends the AG's office should not even be a party in the case.
Welsh set a 1:30 p.m. hearing Friday to decide both matters — what kind of discovery is appropriate for the case as well as what role the attorney general should play in the case.
Parties representing Strickland were hopeful of expediting the process and setting a hearing to once and for all decide Strickland's fate. A previously scheduled Oct. 5 hearing to get the matter underway did not happen with the change in judges.
However, the attorney general's representative said his office needed more time to properly vet some of the evidence Strickland's team planned to use.
While Welsh recognized the importance of expediting the case as Strickland has already spent 43 years in prison, he also emphasized he didn't want this to be a "trial by ambush," and all parties need to be fully informed before going to trial.
The state’s highest court rejected Missouri Attorney General Schmitt’s attempt to have the case moved from Jackson County, but did assign it to a non-Jackson County judge.
Jackson County Judge Kevin Harrell, who had previously overseen the case, had targeted this week to review Strickland’s case under a law passed earlier this year.
The new law allows a prosecutor to file a motion to set aside or vacate a verdict if there is information that the convicted person “may be innocent or may have been erroneously convicted.”
The standard for setting aside a judgement requires “clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence or constitutional error at the original trial or plea that undermines the confidence in the judgment,” according to Senate Bill 53.
Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker filed a motion Aug. 30 under the new law to set aside Strickland’s 1979 murder conviction and set him free.
Schmitt’s office, which has fought against Strickland’s release, immediately intervened to prevent a hearing on his release and has subsequently filed multiple motions to stall and oppose his release.
Strickland’s case has drawn broad support as a miscarriage of justice. The only eye witness to place him at the scene of an August 1978 triple murder recanted her testimonyand two other people convicted of the crime denied Strickland was involved.
"Based upon the amount and quality of the evidence available today, this office would not charge Mr. Strickland with any crime," Baker wrote in a letter co-signed by Chief Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Nelson to Strickland's attorneys in May 2021. "Reliable, corroborated evidence now proves that Mr. Strickland is factually innocent of the charges for which he was convicted in 1979.
The Kansas City, Missouri, City Council passed a resolution supporting a pardon and Strickland’s release in late June.
Strickland, who is now wheelchair-bound, has always maintained his innocence through more than 43 years of incarceration. He currently resides at the Western Missouri Correctional Facility in Cameron.
The Missouri Supreme Court declined to exonerate Strickland in June.
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