Prosecutors in Jackson County, Missouri are using a new avenue to exonerate a man their office convicted of murder decades ago.
Kevin Strickland, now 62, did not shoot and kill Larry Ingram, Sherrie Black, and John Walker during an April 25, 1978 home invasion of Ingram’s residence, prosecutors said in a filing announced Monday. The one witness putting Strickland at the scene of the crime recanted, and other evidence was weak, authorities said. Prosecutors request a court hearing to show Strickland’s innocence once and for all, under the recently reenacted Senate Bill 53, which lets Missouri prosecutors seek to reverse convictions before a judge.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker (D) credited lawmakers and Gov. Mike Parson (R) for the new statute, even though Parson previously balked at pardoning Strickland.
“Most of us have heard the famous quotation that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,'” Baker said in a statement Monday. “Kevin Strickland stands as our own example of what happens when a system set to be just, just gets it terribly wrong. The Missouri General Assembly and Gov. Parson deserve credit for creating a new legal avenue for a local prosecutor to seek relief. Making it possible for an officer of the court to stand before a judge and argue to correct a grave wrong is a system of justice we can all stand behind.”
Baker’s office previously hit a dead end in formally exonerating Strickland when the state Supreme Court denied their petition without giving a reason. In the new filing, prosecutors said shooting survivor Cynthia Douglas recanted her identification of Strickland as the shooter. At the time of the 1978 murders, she initially did not name him as a suspect even though she previously knew him. She only recognized two of the four men who forced their way into the home, prosecutors said: Vincent Bell, who was Strickland’s neighbor, and Kilm Adkins. Douglas only identified Strickland at the scene after her sister’s boyfriend suggested that based on her description of the man with the shotgun, it could have been Strickland.
From the filing [citations removed]:
Later on the morning of April 26, after leaving the hospital, Douglas had another conversation with [the boyfriend] Randy Harris at her mother’s house. … Douglas described the physical features of the fourth suspect with the shotgun to Harris, after which
Harris told Douglas that it could have been “Nardy,” because Strickland had hair like the fourth suspect she described and had recently been hanging out with Bell and Adkins. … Douglas had not considered the fourth suspect to be Strickland until Harris suggested his name based on her physical description of the man’s hair.
Douglas identified Strickland in a lineup under prodding from police to name him in particular, prosecutors wrote:
At the end of this interview, Douglas was asked to view an in-person lineup at the station. … Strickland was one of the four individuals participating in the lineup. Police asked Douglas to identify Strickland, as opposed to asking her to identify the perpetrator with the shotgun. … Douglas positively identified Strickland, whom she had known for at least two years, and whose name she did not give in her initial interviews with police.
Douglas would come to disown this, however.
“I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused, this incident happened back in 1978,” she wrote the Midwest Innocence Project in 2009. “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.”
At the time, the organization, which only takes requests from convicted people, “responded accordingly to Douglas,” prosecutors wrote.
She died in 2015, but authorities cite affidavits from relatives including her sister, and her former husband, who said that Douglas recanted her identification of Strickland and wanted to prove his innocence.
Even Bell and Adkins said he wasn’t there, prosecutors wrote. An uncharged suspect, T.A., also told a fellow inmate about Strickland’s innocence in the early 1990s, according to the filing. In the end, Bell and Adkins only served 10 years of respective 20-year sentences for three counts of second-degree murder, while Strickland got a life sentence without eligibility for probation or parole for 50 years for a count of capital murder, as well as 10 years each for two counts of second-degree murder.
Prosecutors now say the evidence of Strickland’s innocence is “clear and convincing.”
Three of the four actual perpetrators have stated that Strickland was not involved in the homicides. Bell and Adkins have further identified the fourth perpetrator as P.H. Furthermore, the evidence that supported Strickland’s conviction has been undermined, and no reliable evidence of guilt remains. Cynthia Douglas, the victim who survived and was the key witness for the prosecution at Strickland’s trial, recanted her identification of Strickland. Moreover, an eyewitness identification expert has determined Douglas’s identification, even without the recantation, was highly unreliable and likely the product of post-event suggestions. No physical evidence has ever directly connected Strickland to the homicides, and we now know that a fingerprint found on the shotgun used in the attack does not belong to Strickland.
Strickland has spent 43 years in prison, having been convicted at 19 years old.
“I turned 62 today,” he told ABC News from his wheelchair in June. “I just don’t feel like I’ve got a lot of time left. I experienced a couple of heart attacks. I got high blood pressure. My ability to stand is diminished.”
[Screenshot via ABC News]
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