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Kevin Strickland's freedom rests in judge's hands

Evidentiary hearing concludes Wednesday
Posted at 7:03 PM, Nov 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-10 20:03:57-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Judge James Welsh will decide whether or not Kevin Strickland will walk free after 43 years in prison for what Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said is a wrongful conviction.

If he is released, he will have served the longest term of any person wrongfully convicted in Missouri.

Strickland has been imprisoned for 43 years after a jury found him guilty in a 1978 triple murder. That was the second jury to hear Strickland's case, as his first trial ended in a mistrial.

TIMELINE: Kevin Strickland's 43-year fight for freedom

Strickland's conviction rested largely on the eyewitness testimony of the lone survivor of the crime, Cynthia Douglas.

His legal team contended that Douglas recanted her testimony to several family members and friends, and tried to escalate it to officials' attention before her death in 2015.

In February 2009, Douglas (then Cynthia Richardson, after marrying) sent an email to the Midwest Innocence Project with the subject line "Wrongfully charged." It read:

“I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused, this incident happened back in 1978, I was the only eyewitness and things were not clear back then, but now I know more and would like to help this person if I can.”

This week the case was again brought to court in an evidentiary hearing after a new law allowed Peters Baker to petition on Strickland's behalf.

The Missouri attorney general's office appeared in court in an effort to uphold Strickland's conviction.

Strickland hearing: Day 1
Strickland hearing: Day 2
Strickland hearing: Day 3

The AG's team argued Douglas' recantation was nothing more than hearsay, going so far as to "inject some levity" and compare it to the lyrics of an REO Speedwagon song.

"Heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another... may have been good enough for REO Speedwagon, but it's not good enough for a court of law," Gregory Goodwin said in his closing argument.

Multiple family members and friends of Douglas' testified this week that Douglas told them she chose the wrong man in 1978.

The recantation — combined with a multitude of other factors, including alleged issues with Douglas' identification and supposed pressure placed on her at the time — led Strickland's team's to believe he is innocent.

"I am an officer of this court. I am proud to announce that… Nearly 25 years I have spent here, in this place, representing this county, this community, and my courts. I know my community, and I know my bench and I know what they expect of me. They expect no less than this. Bringing a case of innocence when I should, when it merits it,” Peters Baker argued.

She noted that Strickland also turned down multiple plea deals, risking the death penalty, because he refused to accept guilt for a crime he did not commit.

“He turned down multiple deals, two important deals, in this case — and he bet his life on this system. He’s betting his life on this system, still,” she said.

Both parties rested their respected cases Wednesday. Welsh said he would take the matter under advisement and issue a decision in a "timely fashion," though a clear timeframe was not provided.