Kevin Strickland Exonerated After Serving 43 Years Behind Bars for a Triple Murder He Did Not Commit

Kevin Strickland Exonerated After Serving 43 Years Behind Bars Photo Source: The Kansas City Star

Missouri man Kevin Strickland has been released from prison after serving 43 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

Immediately after Senior Judge James Welsh filed his ruling that set aside Strickland’s conviction Tuesday morning, the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office filed a Notice of Dismissal that ordered the release of the now 62-year-old wheelchair-bound Strickland.

Strickland was wrongfully convicted in 1979 for killing three people in Kansas City despite no physical evidence connecting him to the crime. However, the sole witness to the crime, Cynthia Douglas, named Strickland as the man who held the shotgun that killed 22-year-old Sherrie Black, 21-year-old Larry Ingram, and 20-year-old John Walker. Douglas later recanted her testimony and publicly expressed that she was pressured by detectives to name Strickland as the murderer.

In 2009 Douglas sent an email to the Midwest Innocence Project explaining that she was "seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused.” She added, “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.” Douglas later died in 2015.

In addition to the recanted eyewitness testimony, two men later plead guilty to the murders and explained that Strickland was not involved in the killings. Despite all the mounting evidence that detailed Strickland's innocence, his case repeatedly fell on deaf ears over the past couple of years as the courts repeatedly denied Strickland a hearing.

One year after his arrest, Strickland was found guilty by an all-white jury following his first trial that ended in a mistrial after the only black jury member could not come to the conclusion of his guilt. After his second trial, Strickland was given a 50-year life sentence without the possibility of parole. The men who later admitted to the murders struck a plea deal with the courts and served only 20 years behind bars.

Despite Douglas's attempt to recant her testimony, the outcry for Strickland's release only began in September 2020 after the Kansas City Star shared an investigative report on Strickland’s case. Following the Kansas City Star investigation, prosecutors began to look into the case and ultimately concluded that Strickland did not commit the murders and should be released from jail. Despite having a massive amount of support from the community and numerous public officials, the Supreme Court of Missouri denied a June 2021 petition for Strickland's release. Missouri's Governor, Mike Parson, also weighed in publicly stating that Strickland's request for a pardon was not a “priority.” Despite the evidence in Strickland's favor, the governor expressed he was not certain that Strickland was actually innocent.

In his opinion, Judge Welsh wrote that “The recantations Douglas made to her family and friends are reliable” and that “they were numerous and consistent.”

Judge Welsh also highlighted that the men who were convicted of the killing had testified that Strickland was not involved in the killing.

The decision to set Strickland free came after an evidentiary hearing that took place following a newly enacted Missouri law, Senate Bill 53. Under the law, modified provisions related to the justice system made it so that county prosecutors could petition the courts to free inmates who were wrongfully convicted. Judge Welsh highlights the recent law in the opinion, writing, "Until (the law) became effective in August of 2021, Strickland had no procedural mechanism available to him through which he could successfully challenge his conviction absent a showing of constitutional defect in his prosecution or trial."

Judge Welsh concluded, "The Court's confidence in Strickland's conviction is so undermined that it cannot stand, and the judgment of conviction must be set aside."

Following his release, Strickland shared that he was in a state of disbelief at the news. Strickland revealed that he was in the middle of a soap opera when a news broadcast informed him of his dismissed charges and immediate release.

In his first television interview with CNN, Strickland shared about life on the outside, "I'm used to living in a close, confined cell where I know exactly what's going on in there with me. And being home and you hear the creaks of the home settling and the electrical wiring and whatever else ... I was kind of afraid. I thought somebody was coming to get me."

Strickland also shared that the first thing he did when he was set free was to visit his mother’s grave. His mother Rosetta Thornton died on August 21, just months before Strickland was set free. "To know my mother was underneath that dirt and I hadn't gotten a chance to visit with her in the last years ... I revisited those tears that I did when they told me I was guilty of a crime I didn't commit," Strickland shared with CNN's Brianna Keilar. Strickland has also shared that his next priority is to see the ocean, a sight he has never seen in his life.

Strickland’s wrongful imprisonment is the longest in Missouri state history and one of the longest in the nation. As Strickland prepares for the next chapter of his life outside of a jail cell, he will not be eligible for any monetary compensation from the state. Missouri is not one of the 36 states that offer compensation for those who are wrongly imprisoned. Instead, Missouri only offers compensation for those who are exonerated through DNA testing. The Midwest Innocence Project has since set up a GoFundMe account to help support Strickland as he settles into life outside of jail after decades of wrongful imprisonment.

Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti is a postgraduate at James Madison University where she studied English and Education. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and two little girls. Although she considers herself a workaholic, when she’s not juggling work, you can be sure to find her traveling the world with her little family.