Jackson County’s top prosecutor publicly apologized Monday to a Kansas City man who she says has spent more than four decades in prison for a triple murder he did not commit.
Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said she was “profoundly sorry” for the trauma Kevin Strickland, 61, and his family have endured over the last 40 years of his imprisonment. Her office has determined he was wrongly convicted.
“What we did in this case was wrong,” Baker said during a news conference with Strickland’s attorneys at the Jackson County Courthouse. “I am sorry for this mistake made by this system.”
Baker spoke with Strickland by phone Monday morning from prison. He gave her a lot of “grace,” Baker said.
“And he didn’t have to,” she said.
Earlier Monday, the prosecutor’s office said it had determined Strickland is innocent in the 1978 triple murder for which he is in prison. They called for him to be released immediately.
Federal prosecutors, Jackson County’s presiding judge, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and members of the team that sent Strickland to prison four decades ago also agree he was wrongly convicted as a teenager.
Baker described the number of groups and people calling for Strickland’s release “profound” and “different.”
“It does go to the weight of the evidence that he’s innocent,” she said.
Baker noted she does not have the ability to free Strickland, even though the office she now leads prosecuted him before some of his current attorneys were born. Prosecutors need more legal tools to do so, she said.
“I don’t have any actual power here,” Baker said. “And the local DA should have power because we carry a responsibility long after convictions are done.”
Tricia Rojo Bushnell, one of Strickland’s attorneys and executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, noted that no physical evidence linked Strickland to the killings.
Strickland’s innocence is clear, but the “process to bring him home is quite opaque” and difficult, Rojo Bushnell said.
“Currently in Missouri it is unclear whether or not innocence is enough for a person to be released from prison,” she said.
Strickland was convicted at age 19 by an all-white jury in 1979. At trial, prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of Cynthia Douglas, the only eyewitness to the shooting. She later recanted and said detectives pressured her into identifying Strickland.
In an investigation published in September, The Star reported that, for decades, two men who pleaded guilty in the killings swore Strickland was not with them and their two other accomplices during the April 25, 1978, killings at 6934 S. Benton Ave. A third suspect, who was not charged, has since said Strickland is innocent.
The shooting that fateful night killed Larry Ingram, 21; Douglas’ boyfriend, John Walker, 20; and Douglas’ best friend, Sherrie Black, 22. Douglas was wounded in the shooting.
Baker on Monday also apologized to the victims’ families.
Baker’s office, which reviewed Strickland’s case and The Star’s investigation, concluded that the “core claims” made by Vincent Bell — the first suspect to admit guilt in the killings — are credible.
When Bell pleaded guilty in the triple murder in 1979, he repeatedly warned prosecutors that they had convicted Strickland, an innocent man, four months earlier.
“I’m telling you the truth today that Kevin Strickland wasn’t there at the house that day,” Bell declared during his three-hour plea.
Douglas, the eyewitness, tried to correct her mistaken identification and wanted nothing more than to see Strickland freed, her relatives have said. She died in 2015 at age 57.
Meanwhile, Strickland’s older brother, L.R., said he was thrilled about Monday’s news and reiterated, as he has for decades, that his brother was at home during the shooting.
“My brother was not guilty of what they accused him of,” he told The Star.