Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Wednesday said he is not convinced that Kevin Strickland is innocent, making him the first official to publicly doubt prosecutors’ assertions that the Kansas City man was wrongly convicted four decades ago.
In an interview with 41 Action News, Parson said he does not know if Strickland, 62, is “innocent or not” in a 1978 triple murder in Kansas City that the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office now says he did not commit.
“I am not convinced that I’m willing to put other people at risk if you’re not right,” the Republican governor and former Polk County sheriff told the television station, adding that “no one has been proven innocent here in a court of law, is the bottom line.”
Parson’s comments came more than 40 days after Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced her office had concluded Strickland, who was 18 when he was arrested, is “factually innocent” in the April 25, 1978, shooting at 6934 S. Benton Ave.
They also came weeks after 13 state lawmakers, including the Republican chair of the Missouri House committee that oversees the state’s prison system, called on Parson to pardon Strickland.
Additionally, federal prosecutors in western Missouri, Jackson County’s presiding judge, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and other officials agreed May 10 that Strickland deserves to be exonerated.
Parson told KSHB-TV he looked at Strickland’s case several times, but did not specify what evidence made him question Strickland’s proclaimed innocence. He noted he will likely sign legislation that would give local prosecutors the power to ask judges to exonerate prisoners they have deemed innocent.
Kelli Jones, Parson’s spokeswoman, said the governor and his team have and will continue to review Strickland’s case. However, she said, Parson believes “we must give great deference to the judicial process and a jury’s finding of guilt.”
“Mr. Strickland received due process, his case has been reviewed by numerous courts subsequent to his conviction, and he currently has a pending case wherein he can raise his claims yet again,” Jones said in an email.
In a Twitter post Thursday, the Midwest Innocence Project, which represents Strickland, said it would be happy to sit down with Parson and “go over the evidence.”
In September, The Star reported that two men who pleaded guilty in the killings for decades swore Strickland was not with them and two other accomplices during the shooting. A third suspect, who was never charged, in 2019 also told an investigator that he knew there “couldn’t be a more innocent person” than Strickland.
The lone eyewitness also recanted and wanted nothing more than to see Strickland freed, her relatives said.
Baker: ‘We’re gonna fight’
Calls for Parson to pardon Strickland — who requested a full pardon so his proclaimed innocence is “finally recognized” — have grown in the last month.
Among the people and groups calling for a pardon was the Washington Post Editorial Board, which wrote Sunday that Parson “should end the injustice” and pardon Strickland and Lamar Johnson, who St. Louis prosecutors say is innocent in a 1994 murder.
“Mr. Johnson and Mr. Strickland should not have to wait one more day for their freedom,” that editorial board wrote.
Appearing last week on Rachel Maddow’s show, Jackson County’s prosecutor said the fact that Strickland remains imprisoned in Cameron is a “failure.” Baker also noted that most of the 36 people recently pardoned by Parson were already out of prison.
“Mr. Strickland is rightly in that category of someone who is deserving — deserving — of that kind of government action by our governor,” Baker told Maddow, adding, though, that it might “not happen.”
“We’re gonna fight for him,” Baker told Maddow.
Baker previously told The Star that her staff assured the governor’s office that prosecutors thoroughly reviewed Strickland’s case before determining he was wrongly convicted. That review included presenting the case to 20 senior prosecutors.
Strickland could also be freed through a third avenue.
His attorneys earlier this month refiled a petition urging his release in DeKalb County after the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear his case. Judge Ryan Horsman on Wednesday moved a scheduling conference in the case from Aug. 9 to July 12.
It is expected that Strickland’s attorneys at a later date will argue he should be freed during an evidentiary hearing.