Missouri may pass bill that can help Jackson County prosecutor free Kevin Strickland

·5 min read

On Monday, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said Missouri law won’t allow her to move to free a Kansas City man she said is innocent.

On Wednesday, legislators were on the brink of passing a bill to give her that power.

Attached to legislation that lifts the Kansas City Police Department’s residency requirement and enacts a bipartisan package of criminal justice reforms is a provision allowing local prosecutors to ask a judge to throw out convictions in innocence cases.

The measure was added to the criminal justice bill last week, approved by the Missouri Senate with two days left in the legislative session and was waiting for a final vote in the House on Wednesday evening.

If the bill passes and is signed by Gov. Mike Parson, Baker could file a court motion as early as the end of August asking a judge to clear the conviction of Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man imprisoned for more than two-thirds of his life for a 1978 triple homicide

It gives local prosecutors a mechanism missing in state law to pursue freedom for the wrongfully convicted, a step prosecutors’ offices around the nation are taking in the age of criminal justice reform.

Conviction Integrity Units set up by reform-minded prosecutors have increasingly determined that people their offices charged decades ago were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. Strickland is the first person deemed innocent by Baker’s unit.

Efforts to free the innocent have been limited in Missouri.

In March, the state Supreme Court ruled that absent the legal procedure allowing St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner to petition for a new trial long after a conviction, it could not rule in favor of an imprisoned St. Louis man Gardner said is actually innocent of murder.

“These cases are true tragedies in the justice system,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, an Independence Democrat who pushed for the measure. “[Prosecutors] have an ethical obligation … if they know someone is wrongly incarcerated, to do everything they can to fix that and remedy it.”

The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office announced just Monday it had determined Strickland, now 61, is innocent. The county’s top prosecutors, federal prosecutors, Kansas City’s mayor, Jackson County’s presiding judge and others are now calling for his immediate exoneration and release.

Under the bill, a judge could hold a hearing and toss the conviction if they find “clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence,” or if they determine the defendant was convicted in an unconstitutional way.

At that hearing, Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office could question witnesses and make arguments. That office has opposed just about every wrongful conviction case to come before it since 2000, according to Chicago-based news outlet Injustice Watch, and intervened against Gardner in the St. Louis case before the Supreme Court.

During a news conference Monday, Baker said she supported the legislation because she was otherwise powerless to right Strickland’s decades-old conviction.

“Some of you are probably surprised to learn that I don’t have any actual power here,” she said. “The local DA should have power because we carry a responsibility long after convictions are done.”

That lack of authority, without DNA evidence, is likely why previous prosecutors have not taken their role in righting wrongful convictions as seriously, Baker said. Prosecutors need legal tools to “walk into a courtroom with,” she said.

Without that tool herself, Baker’s office filed a brief supporting Strickland’s petition for freedom before the Missouri Supreme Court, which was filed Monday. A prosecutor’s interest in making sure justice is done is “nowhere more pronounced” than in Strickland’s case, prosecutors wrote.

The office “sincerely seeks to remedy the intolerable wrong it helped create in State v. Kevin Strickland, and to do so expediently within the settled procedural landscape,” prosecutors wrote. “Remaining silent or reflexively defending our conviction would be not only an abdication of duty, but a delegitimization of the system we uphold every day.”

The legislation came together quickly late in the session.

Lawmakers floated it last year, but Rizzo said they felt increased urgency after the Supreme Court on March 4 denied an appeal for a new trial for Lamar Johnson, who is serving life without parole for a 1995 murder.

In that case, Gardner’s office contends they have new evidence Johnson is innocent. It includes confessions from two men who said they were involved in the murder and Johnson was not, and evidence that police paid the sole eyewitness.

Justices did not touch the question of Johnson’s guilt, and kicked the issue of whether Gardner could ask for a new trial to the General Assembly.

“One’s sense of justice and belief that innocent people should not be imprisoned for crimes they did not commit requires there to be some mechanism for the state to redress an error it helped create,” wrote Chief Justice George Draper III.

The ruling came down a day after the legislature’s bill filing deadline. Rizzo said he met with prosecutors across the state and attorneys specializing in innocence cases to draft the legislation, then pushed to get it attached to other bills.

Last week on the House floor, Rep. Bill Hardwick, a Waynesville Republican, inserted the provision into a criminal justice package that had already passed the Senate. Rizzo called it “fortuitous” that Baker’s declaration of Strickland’s innocence came days later.

Original bill sponsor Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, a Parkville Republican, agreed to keep the measure in the bill when members of the two chambers met Wednesday to iron out a final package.

The bill passed the Senate on a 31-2 vote.

“The train was on the tracks and we were moving down the road on this legislation,” Rizzo said, “and to have a case front and center in The Kansas City Star of the exact reason why we’re doing this was very helpful.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the representative who inserted the measure in the House. It was Rep. Bill Hardwick.