Judge to rule on motions in Kevin Strickland case; lawyer calls delay an ‘injustice’

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A Jackson County Circuit Court judge will decide on Friday whether to recuse himself from local prosecutors’ efforts to exonerate and free Kevin Strickland.

During a hearing Monday, Judge Kevin Harrell heard arguments from lawyers with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, who contend Harrell should rescue himself from the case and disqualify other judges in Jackson County because the circuit’s presiding judge, Dale Youngs, previously said he agrees Strickland, 62, should be exonerated.

Jackson County prosecutors, who say Strickland has wrongly spent 43 years in prison, and his lawyers opposed the request and argued that Youngs’ public statement should not disqualify every judge in the circuit.

One of Strickland’s attorneys, Bob Hoffman of the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, called the further delay of an evidentiary hearing that could lead to Strickland’s freedom an “injustice.” He noted Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker called for Strickland’s immediate release May 10 — more than four months ago — after determining he is innocent in a 1978 triple murder.

“Here we are, and it’s Sept. 13; he’s still in prison,” Hoffman told reporters. “So, nothing’s changed for him.”

Asked if the delays could dissuade other county prosecutors from seeking to free innocent prisoners, Hoffman said he believes that is “exactly what is happening here.” He added that lawyers with the attorney general’s office, which contends Strickland is guilty, have “attacked” one of the prosecutors who reviewed Strickland’s innocence claim.

On Thursday, former Missouri Supreme Court chief justice Edward “Chip” Robertson — who has been called a “a giant in Missouri jurisprudence” — joined the prosecutors’ team trying to free Strickland.

Utilizing a new law that went into effect Aug. 28, Jackson County prosecutors filed a 25-page motion that argues Strickland’s innocence is “clear and convincing” in the April 25, 1978, killings at 6934 S. Benton Ave. in Kansas City.

The attorney general’s office filed motions in the case, including the one that requested the recusals. Its lawyers cited a letter Baker put out that said Youngs “concurs on behalf” of the court that Strickland’s conviction should be set aside.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, who wrote the relevant provision in the new state law, said the legislation was not intended to allow the attorney general’s office to file such motions.

In a ruling earlier this month, however, an appeals court said the attorney general’s motions must be considered.

At the hearing, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Clarke argued that the appearance of bias was enough for recusal. He said news coverage of the case has declared Strickland innocent, which has not been proved in court.

Kate Brubacher, a Jackson County assistant prosecutor, said headlines are not “grounds for recusal” and called the attorney general’s motion “another attempt to delay justice” for Strickland.

Hoffman told the judge that the new law, which allows local prosecutors to seek to free prisoners deemed innocent, says the case should be decided in the court in which the person was convicted. He asserted that Youngs’ comments were not improper, asked for the case to proceed quickly and noted that as the state continues to fight with the state, Strickland remains behind bars.

“That is the height of injustice,” he said.

In another motion, the attorney general’s office, under Eric Schmitt, asked that the case be moved from criminal to civil court. Harrell will also announce his ruling on that motion Friday morning.

Baker suggested that an evidentiary hearing, during which prosecutors will argue Strickland is innocent, be set for Oct. 4 through the 6th. Such a hearing, however, has not been scheduled.

“Time is elapsing every single day,” Baker said.

In spite of the delays, Hoffman said Strickland, who was 18 when he was arrested, remains “very resilient.”

“He’s handling it a lot better than I would,” Hoffman said.

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