KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker joined the attorneys for Kevin Strickland and representatives from the Midwest Innocence Project on Monday in calling for his triple-murder conviction to be overturned and for Strickland to be released from state prison.
"Today, my job is to apologize," Peters Baker said during a news conference Monday afternoon. "It is important to recognize when the system has made wrongs. And what we did in this case was wrong. So to Mr. Strickland, I am profoundly sorry. I am profoundly sorry for the harm that has come to you."
Strickland has spent 43 years in jail for Aug. 25, 1978, shooting that left three people dead and one other person wounded. He has always maintained his innocence.
Strickland's first jury trial ended with a hung jury, but he was convicted by a second jury and sentence to life in prison for capital murder in 1979.
Baker and Strickland's attorneys detailed evidence of his wrongful conviction came to light. Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said during the news conference that "mere months" after Strickland's conviction a co-defendant described in detail the events of the crime naming three other individuals involved – none of whom were Strickland.
"While justice has been delayed, we believe it will not be denied," Bushnell said.
Strickland, 61, is currently housed at the Western Missouri Correctional Facility. He has served 43 years of his 50-year life sentence without the possibility for parole.
Bushnell and Strickland’s attorney, Robert J. Hoffman with the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner firm filed a petition for his release to the Missouri Supreme Court.
The petition includes a letter detailing the results of an investigation by the county prosecutor’s Conviction Integrity Unit.
"Based upon the amount and quality of the evidence available today, this office would not charge Mr. Strickland with any crime," according to a letter signed by Baker and Chief Deputy Prosecutor Daniel Nelson to Strickland's attorneys. "Reliable, corroborated evidence now proves that Mr. Strickland is factually innocent of the charges for which he was convicted in 1979. In the interests of justice, Mr. Strickland’s conviction should be set aside, he should be promptly released, and he deserves public exoneration."
That review found that Strickland’s conviction relied heavily on the eye witness testimony of a now-deceased woman, Cynthia Douglas, who “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 wrote in a letter to Strickland’s attorneys.
Douglas, who was also injured in the deadly shooting, initially identified two other people, co-defendants Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins, as the suspects who had killed her three friends and shot her. She said she did not know the third person involved.
Douglas named Strickland a day later “only after her sister’s boyfriend suggested Strickland might be involved” and later tried to clear Strickland’s name.
Bell and Adkins admitted guilt for the shootings and denied Strickland’s involvement. The two co-defendants eventually even named the third suspect — a different person than Strickland, yet Strickland has remained behind bars since he was a teenager.
"For much of Vincent Bell’s unusual allocution, he discussed not his own pending plight, but Mr. Strickland’s innocence," according to the letter from Baker's office. "He said repeatedly that he was pleading guilty because the State convicted Strickland, who was not even there."
According to the prosecutor’s office, Baker met with members of the family, who are still grieving more than four decades later.
“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,” according to a statement from the Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Strickland represented himself on appeal of his conviction, which the Midwest Innocence Project became aware of and started working to address after Douglas reached out via email in February 2009.
The judge and original prosecutor in the case are dead, but another member of the trial team — James Bell, who now runs a private practice — believes Strickland’s conviction should be overturned.
“If (Strickland’s prosecutor) 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,” James Bell said.
Presiding Judge J. Dale Youngs of the 16th Judicial Circuit in Jackson County “concurred that the conviction should be set aside and he agreed that the evidence shows Strickland’s actual innocence,” according to a release from the prosecutor’s office.
Based on a collateral review by the Assistant U.S. Attorney David Ketchmark with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Missouri, federal prosecutors also agree that Strickland was convicted in error and should be set free.
The letter from Baker's office also indicated support from KCMO Mayor Quinton Lucas and the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department for setting aside Strickland's conviction and releasing him from prison.
Adkins and and Vincent Bell only received 20-year sentences, serving about 10 years behind bars, as part of plea deals in the case, according to the letter from Baker's office.
Meanwhile, Strickland — who was convicted of capital murder, two counts of second-degree murder and first-degree assault — remains jailed on a "Hard 50" sentence.
Peters Baker said the "full picture" in Strickland's case had not been made clear until recent months. Her office was notified in fall 2020, and following a report in the Kansas City Star detailing the case, Peters Baker's office began its own review.