After being exonerated on Tuesday for a 1978 triple murder in Kansas City for which he had spent more than 43 years in prison, Kevin Strickland, 62, went straight from prison to his mother’s grave.
“That was the first stop that we made,” his lawyer, Tricia Rojo Bushnell, said in an interview.
Mr. Strickland’s mother, Rosetta Thornton, died in August, but he had not been able to visit her grave site as he was serving time for a crime he vehemently says he had no role in: the April 25, 1978, murders of Sherrie Black, 22, Larry Ingram, 21, and John Walker, 20.
Mr. Strickland was convicted in 1979 of one count of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years and two concurrent 10-year-sentences.
But in exonerating him on Tuesday, Judge James Welsh, of Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals, noted that Mr. Strickland had been convicted despite a lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, that another man convicted in the killings said Mr. Strickland had not been involved and that the only eyewitness had later tried to recant her testimony.
Mr. Strickland spent longer in prison than anyone in Missouri who was later exonerated, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
The case against Mr. Strickland had largely been built around the testimony of Cynthia Douglas, the only eyewitness and survivor of the attack in 1978. After being treated for gunshot wounds to her arm and leg, Ms. Douglas was able to identify two of four men responsible for the attack but could not identify the other two.
“By all accounts, Douglas was hysterical at the time, suffering from two gunshot wounds and having just witnessed the execution of three friends,” Judge Welsh wrote in his opinion. From a live lineup, Ms. Douglas later chose Mr. Strickland, who was in custody and was “a known associate” of two of the men Ms. Douglas had identified.
The two men, Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins, pleaded guilty in 1979 for their roles in the murders. In his testimony, Mr. Bell “remained adamant that Strickland was not present at the crime scene and played no part in the commission of the triple homicide,” the judge wrote.
Within a year of Mr. Strickland’s conviction, Ms. Douglas began to reveal to those close to her that she had misidentified Mr. Strickland as an assailant in the attack, according to court records. It was not until 2009, however, that she sent an email to the Midwest Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigating and litigating for the wrongfully convicted.
“I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused,” wrote Ms. Douglas, who died in 2015. “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.”
Sometime after Ms. Douglas wrote the Midwest Innocence Project, Mr. Strickland also contacted the nonprofit seeking help. The group took up his case and began an investigation.
In its own 2020 investigation, The Kansas City Star reported that Mr. Bell and Mr. Adkins had sworn that Strickland was not with them during the attack.
The review of the case was made possible at the request of a Jackson County prosecutor who said that evidence used in Mr. Strickland’s conviction had been recanted or disproved, which prompted an evidentiary hearing in Mr. Strickland’s case two weeks ago.
In his ruling, which was filed on Tuesday, Judge Welsh wrote: “The Court’s confidence in Strickland’s convictions is so undermined that it cannot stand, and the judgment of conviction must be set aside. Absent Douglas’s positive, unequivocal identification of Strickland, there would have been no charge, no trial, and certainly no conviction.”
Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri, a Republican, chose earlier this year not to pardon Mr. Strickland. Still, in posts on Twitter about Mr. Strickland’s exoneration on Tuesday, Governor Parson acknowledged that a bill he had signed into law this year “created a judicial procedure for prosecuting attorneys to use, in cases like this one, where the prosecutor believes that there was a miscarriage of justice and a wrongful conviction was entered.”
“The Court has made its decision, we respect the decision, and the Department of Corrections will proceed with Mr. Strickland’s release immediately,” Governor Parson said.
After visiting his mother’s grave on Tuesday, Mr. Strickland went to dinner with friends, family members and Ms. Rojo Bushnell, his lawyer.
“He’s described it as that there isn’t yet a word for the emotion that he has because it’s a little bit of so many things,” Ms. Rojo Bushnell said in the interview on Tuesday night, stepping away from the dinner. “There’s joy, but there’s also sadness and grief and anger and all of that combined into one thing.”
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, a Democrat, said that the exoneration “brings justice — finally — to a man who has tragically suffered so so greatly as a result of this wrongful conviction.”
“To say we’re extremely pleased and grateful is an understatement,” Ms. Baker said.
But not all were pleased. Missouri’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in 2022, fought the exoneration. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday night.
Mr. Strickland still faces several challenges. Because he was exonerated without DNA evidence, Mr. Strickland is not entitled to compensation from the state, his lawyer said. He will also need help getting an identification card, a bank account and clothing.
“These are all questions he’s never had to think about or been able to think about that he’ll be having to do very quickly,” Ms. Rojo Bushnell said. “We’re ecstatic that he’s home, but we also just know that there’s nothing that will give him that time back.”