KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The ongoing legal saga in the Kevin Strickland case reached a critical juncture Monday at the Jackson County Courthouse.
An evidentiary hearing began, during which Strickland's legal team presented evidence and arguments that they hope exonerates their client.
Strickland has been in prison for 43 years, serving a capital murder sentence for a 1978 triple homicide. Strickland has maintained his innocence.
The Missouri attorney general's office said that Strickland's trial was fair and constitutional and has filed other motions challenging various pieces of evidence. Strickland's initial trial produced a hung jury, and a second trial produced the conviction that has kept him behind bars for decades.
Calls to overturn Strickland's conviction have intensified in recent months as Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and her office have gone back and forth with the Missouri AG's office over various motions prior to Monday's hearing, causing delays.
Strickland also mounted an effort to receive a pardon from Gov. Mike Parson, which was unsuccessful.
Monday morning, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said she is risking her office's reputation on their belief of Strickland's innocence.
Peters Baker recognized she had to prove the recantation of an eyewitness testimony, which was key in Strickland's conviction, was "real, truthful and a product of [Cynthia Douglas'] own free will."
Douglas, who was also shot at the scene of the triple murder but survived, originally testified Strickland was there that night.
Peters Baker said she would show the court in this week's hearing that Douglas reiterated over the course of 30 years that she'd made a mistake in her testimony against Strickland.
Douglas died after being ill in 2015.
Peters Baker first called Strickland himself to the witness stand.
She asked if Strickland "enjoyed" the attention his case has received in recent months.
“I’m more of a private person, hope to be a very private person if I’m released from this situation,” Strickland said.
Peters Baker asked him if he entered the house where the murders happened, or if he waited in the car outside the house.
"By no means was I anywhere near that crime scene," Strickland repeated after both questions.
Strickland did admit he gave shotgun shells to Vincent Bell, but said it was weeks before the murders and was not for the purpose of shooting anyone.
He also noted he frequently drove Bell's car since Bell did not have his own driver's license.
Bell was one of two other co-defendants convicted in the murders.
He also acknowledged he was was being a "smart aleck" with police in his original interview and recognizes the perception that gives people about him.
Strickland also said he was drunk and possibly high during the arrest and interview, and he regrets some the statements he made to police at the time.
The attorney general's representatives alleged this is the first time Strickland has, on the record, said he was inebriated during the interview, though Strickland argued he hadn't been given the opportunity to give that information before.
Strickland, who said "the remainder of my life" hinges on the outcome of this trial, also detailed the efforts he's put toward his release over the course of the last 43 years.
From the time he was convicted, he never stopped writing.
"Anything I could send to the court, somebody please listen," Strickland said.
When the Midwest Innocence Project and the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office came on board with his case, things changed.
"Happy, hopeful," Strickland described feeling. "Finally somebody's going to pay attention to my pleas of innocence."
After the court returned from lunch, the AG completed its cross examination of Strickland, and his team continued to call witnesses, the first of whom was Laurie Maytubby.
Maytubby worked with Douglas, then Cynthia Richardson, for a number of years in the accounting office of Jackson County family services, where the pair became friends.
She testified Douglas confided in her once that she'd picked the wrong person because police pressured her to do so.
Douglas's mother, Senoria Douglas, also testified her daughter said similar things to her on two occasions, and seemed burdened by it.
Strickland's legal team called other family members of Douglas' to the stand Monday.
Sherri Jordan, Douglas' daughter, said her mother talked with her four or five times about picking the wrong person. That was around 2010, Jordan said.
Perhaps the most emotional testimony of the day came from Douglas' sister, Cecile "Cookie" Simmons, who said Douglas suffered from flashbacks of the shooting and had "meltdowns."
Simmons said Douglas told her it was the police who picked Strickland out of a lineup, not her.
Douglas said she was told at the time of the trial that if she didn't cooperate, all three defendants would walk and there would be not justice at all, according to Simmons.
She also testified Strickland's name initially came up because he was know to hang out with the other two men convicted in the killings.
"Guilt by association. That is how [Strickland] got blamed in that,” Simmons said.
Simmons said Douglas talked about Strickland's innocence all the time and was trying to do the right thing. She'd even contacted then-Gov. Mel Carnahan on his behalf.
But those she reached out to for help told Douglas she could end up in jail for perjury, her sister said.
"People can scare you when you're nobody and don't have a law degree," Simmons said.
Because of the threats, Simmons said, Douglas backed down.
"Cindy tried to get someone to listen when she was alive, and they wouldn't," Simmons said.
She vowed not to back down on her late sister's behalf.
Others who testified included people who work in the court system, a former employee of the Midwest Innocence Project, and a latent fingerprint examiner from the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department crime lab.
The examiner looked at 61 "prints of value" in Strickland's case and found none that matched Strickland.
In cross examination, she noted she could not say Strickland was not at the house that night based on her findings, because it would have been possible for him to leave no prints under certain circumstances and she was also unable to gather some necessary prints from him.