KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Under a clear blue late November sky Tuesday, Kevin Strickland was finally able to trade in his orange jumpsuit for freedom.
Just after 2:30 p.m., Strickland was officially released from the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri, after serving nearly 43 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
Strickland said he's "still in disbelief."
"I didn’t think this day was gonna come. Not before I got this legal team, I didn’t," Strickland said.
Strickland learned about his release while watching TV.
"I was actually watching a soap opera and the thing went across, a news break or whatever they call them, and I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. That’s how I learned. Then other inmates started hollering, and I heard them beating on walls and carrying on," Strickland said.
While he tries to absorb all that's happening, Strickland said he's feeling things he doesn't have the words to describe right now.
“I’m not necessarily angry. It’s a lot. I think I’ve created some emotions that you all don’t know about just yet. I’m gonna have to put a name on them… Happy, joy, sorrow, fear. I’m trying to figure out how to put them all together,” Strickland said.
Earlier Tuesday, retired Missouri judge James Welsh ordered the state to immediately release Strickland after Jackson County prosecutors successfully made the case that Strickland was innocent of a 1978 triple murder.
Strickland thanked Welsh for listening to his case.
"I really appreciate him taking his time to listen and understand what really happened in 1978. I was an easy mark, and the police took advantage of it. I’d like to tell [Welsh] thank you for listening," Strickland said.
Strickland was surrounded by attorneys who worked for years to convince anyone who would listen of Strickland’s innocence.
"I think it does show just how incredibly difficult this process is, even with the prosecutor on your side," Tricia Bushnell, one of Strickland's attorneys, said.
Strickland said this Thanksgiving, he's thankful for numerous things, his attorneys among them.
“I can’t begin to say what all I’m thankful for… These attorneys for starters, because without them, I wouldn’t be sitting here, you wouldn’t be sitting here," Strickland said. "Thankful for God walking me through this for 43 years, protecting me. He let me get a little scuffed up along the way. I guess those were learning lessons… Just thankful to have, aside from this wheelchair, my health, and not get any more victimized in that prison system than I was.”
As for the justice system, Strickland said he's hopeful he can impact needed change.
“It needs to be torn down and redone. From the arresting officer to the presiding judge. It don’t work. I mean it worked here in the long run, but it took 43 years to get here when they knew from day one that I wasn’t the person that committed that crime. So it needs to be revamped, as much as corrections need to be revamped," Strickland said.
Strickland's freedom was made possible by a new Missouri law which allowed Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to petition on his behalf for the state to set aside his conviction.
Tuesday, Strickland said he's grateful for Peters Baker's help.
“Without her I very well might not be sitting here today and I really appreciate her," Strickland said. "I know there’s a lot of people, and prisoners looking at me right now, that probably don’t like her very much — but when she find innocence or a wrongdoing she looks like she’s going to start to be a lot fairer than guys might think she’s been in the past.”
Strickland's 1979 conviction rested largely on the sole eyewitness testimony of Cynthia Douglas, who — before her death in 2015 — recanted her testimony of his involvement to multiple people.
Strickland said he harbors no bitterness toward her, but toward the system.
Before she passed she tried to get the word out. She let everybody know that she could that I wasn’t the one. I’d just like to tell her thank you for trying to get that done,” Strickland said. “No hard feelings toward her. My hard feelings are with the system. They knew from day one I didn’t commit this crime. They knew I was an easy mark, so why not give it to me.”
Reaction to Strickland’s freedom was quick to pour in, as officials praised the judge’s ruling.