KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The judge who set Kevin Strickland free Tuesday based his decision on three important factors, according to the ruling filed in Jackson County Circuit Court.
Judge James Welsh, a special appointment to the case, set aside Strickland's conviction, allowing him to walk free from prison after serving 43 years for a triple murder he did not commit later Tuesday afternoon, based on the lack of physical evidence, an eye witness' credible and consistent recantation before her death, and the insistence of two other men convicted of the crime that Strickland wasn't involved.
The decision comes after an evidentiary hearing earlier this month based on a newly created Missouri law, Senate Bill 53 that was signed in July and took effect a month later, that allows county prosecutors to petition the court to release wrongfully convicted inmates.
Cynthia Douglas was the lone survivor and only eye witness to a 1978 triple murder in Kansas City, Missouri. Her identification of Strickland was the foundation of his 1979 conviction.
She testified that Strickland held the shotgun during both of his trials, including the first one that ended in a mistrial.
Douglas died after a prolonged illness in 2015, but she recanted her testimony to several friends and family members before her death. She also attempted to exonerate Strickland with an email to the Midwest Innocence Project in 2009.
Despite Douglas' efforts, Strickland remained in jail after losing a series of appeals and habeas corpus hearings.
It wasn't until Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney Jean Peters Baker petitioned on Strickland's behalf under the new Missouri law that he had a real chance at exoneration, Welsh wrote in his decision.
"Until (the law) became effective in August of 2021, Strickland had no procedural mechanism available to him through which he could successfully challenge his conviction absent of showing constitutional defect in his prosecution or trial," Welsh, who retired from the Missouri Courts of Appeals Western District in 2018, wrote.
The hearing under the new law concluded Nov. 10. Welsh allowed Strickland's legal team and the Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's office, which sought to uphold the conviction, to continue submitting exhibits until Nov. 22.
After collecting and reviewing all relevant pieces of evidence and information, Welsh concluded Tuesday that Strickland should be freed.
First, Welsh wrote, there was no physical evidence connecting Strickland to the triple homicide.
Second, Douglas' testimony, which she later recanted, was the "lynchpin" of Strickland's conviction.
Welsh wrote Douglas' recantations were "reliable," "consistent," and "numerous."
Furthermore, Welsh said, she talked with family and friends about her concerns that she had identified the wrong man and those recantations are even more trustworthy because they were absent "of any apparent motivation to fabricate her statements."
Finally, two other men convicted for the murders, Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins, steadfastly maintained that Strickland was not involved in the murders.
The pair identified the other two perpetrators, but no one was ever charged in the case.
Bell and Adkins both pleaded guilty. Strickland refused a plea deal — at risk of the death penalty — as he continued to proclaim his innocence.
"The Court's confidence in Strickland's conviction is so undermined that it cannot stand, and the judgment of conviction must be set aside," Welsh concluded.
Kansas City criminal defense attorney John Picerno said he's not surprised Strickland's case rose and fell on eyewitness testimony.
“We know that eyewitness identification is inherently unreliable," Picerno said. "We know that a large percentage of people who have been found innocent and gotten their cases set aside and march to freedom — they were convicted largely on identification."
Picerno agreed with Welsh that the new Missouri statute was "the only avenue" through which Strickland could be released.
“He had litigated the matter through the post-conviction relief circuit, and there are certain procedural rules that make it very difficult for somebody once they are convicted to be able to be released," Picerno said. "This new statute allows for evidence to come forward that may not have been considered by other appellate courts in the past and so that is what happened in this case.“
Despite being wrongfully imprisoned for most of his life, Missouri law doesn't allow for any compensation in Strickland's case, according to the Midwest Innocence Project. The state only compensates exonerees if they are set free by DNA evidence.
A GoFundMe has been set up to raise money on Strickland's behalf to help with his transition to freedom.