LIBERTY, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri prosecutor has filed a motion asking a judge to exonerate a man who has been imprisoned for four decades for a triple murder that she and many others do not believe he committed.
The motion, filed Saturday and made public Monday, stems from a new law that gives local prosecutors the authority to ask judges to exonerate prisoners they believe are innocent.
“Most of us have heard the famous quotation that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in a written statement. “Kevin Strickland stands as our own example of what happens when a system set to be just, just gets it terribly wrong.”
Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office has argued in a court motion that Strickland is guilty. Gov. Mike Parson, who could pardon Strickland, has said he’s not convinced that Strickland is innocent.
Members of the team that prosecuted Strickland, federal prosecutors in the Western District of Missouri, Jackson County’s presiding judge, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and some Republican members of Missouri Legislature have all said Strickland should be released.
Strickland, of Kansas City, was 18 when he was arrested in the deaths on April 25, 1978, of Larry Ingram, 21; John Walker, 20; and Sherrie Black, 22, during a home invasion. The motion said that at the time, he was a “hot-headed teenager” and “made cocky and sarcastic comments that aroused police suspicion.”
But he has maintained his innocence since his arrest. Jurors in his first trial were unable to reach a verdict. Strickland, who is Black, was convicted the second time by an all-white jury.
Cynthia Douglas was wounded but pretended to be dead, and the case against Strickland rested largely on her identifying Strickland as the killer. But she retracted her statement before she died in 2015, sending an email to the Midwest Innocence Project in 2009 that said: “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.”
Her family also has signed affidavits saying Douglas wanted Strickland released from prison. The motion said that one longtime family friend said in an affidavit that Douglas told everyone that “the detectives told her what to say.”
The motion further said that three of the four actual perpetrators said that Strickland was not involved in the homicides, and two of them identified another person. The motion also said that a fingerprint found on the murder weapon was not Strickland’s.
“The evidence of Strickland’s innocence is clear and convincing.” the motion said, adding that the “evidence that supported Strickland’s conviction has been undermined, and no reliable evidence of guilt remains.”
Assistant Attorney General Andrew Clarke argued in a motion filed in July that Strickland was given a fair trial in 1979 and had offered Douglas money the day of the killings to keep “her mouth shut.” He also said Douglas’ alleged recantation can’t be verified and noted she did not sign any affidavits about her changed beliefs while she was alive.
The Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear Strickland’s case in June. An evidentiary hearing scheduled in DeKalb County, where Strickland is imprisoned, was dropped Aug. 18 so Strickland’s attorneys could focus their efforts in Jackson County.
The new law also could spur action on the other side of Missouri.
Lamar Johnson has spent 26 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Johnson was convicted in the 1994 killing of 25-year-old Marcus Boyd in an alleged drug dispute in St. Louis.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, a Democrat, believes Johnson was wrongly convicted and sought a new trial. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled against her in March, even while noting that the case was “not about whether Johnson is innocent and did not receive a constitutionally fair trial.”
Instead, Schmitt’s office argued successfully that Gardner lacked authority to seek a new trial so many years after the case was adjudicated.
It wasn’t clear if Gardner would now seek to overturn the conviction under the new state law. A spokeswoman for Gardner said she wasn’t aware of any immediate pending action.