The 43-year incarceration of Kevin Strickland

For the last 43 years, Kevin Strickland has been behind bars in Cameron, Missouri. Strickland, who was 18 at the time of his arrest, was convicted on three counts of murder for a 1978 triple homicide and sentenced to 50 years without the possibility of parole.

There is no physical evidence connecting Strickland to the crime. Strickland's fingerprints were not found in the home where the murders took place or on the murder weapon. His conviction was based almost entirely on one eyewitness. 

Cynthia Douglas was struck by a bullet in the 1978 shooting but was the lone survivor. Her best friend and boyfriend were two of the victims. Douglas immediately identified two of the suspects, Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins, who both later pled guilty. She claimed she only got "a glance" of a third man holding a shotgun and signed an affidavit saying she did not know him. Later, Randy Davis, who was dating Douglas' sister, suggested to Douglas that the shooter might be Strickland. Douglas identified Strickland, who she did know, as the shooter the following afternoon. 

About 30 years after Strickland's conviction, Douglas recanted her identification. On February 4, 2009, Douglas sent an email to the Missouri Innocence Project with the subject "Wrongfully charged." 

I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused, this incident happened back in 1978, 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.

No meaningful action was taken in response to the email. Douglas passed away in 2015 but multiple family members have confirmed she believed that Strickland was innocent. 

Douglas' ex-husband says she realized she had made the wrong identification immediately after attending Vincent Bell's sentencing hearing. Bell identified an alternative suspect, Paul Holiway. He spent much of his three-hour allocution focused "not his own pending plight, but...Strickland’s innocence." 

“I’m telling you the truth today that Kevin Strickland wasn’t there at the house that day. I’m telling the state and the society out there right now Kevin Strickland wasn’t there at that house,” Bell said in 1979.

Douglas, according to her ex-husband, "immediately attempted to bring this information forward, he says, but she was rebuffed by someone from the prosecutor’s office." Adkins has also repeatedly claimed that Strickland was not involved. Neither Bell nor Adkins "has ever received consideration or any deal" in exchange for declaring Strickland's innocence and implicating another suspect. Bell and Adkins each served about 10 years after pleading guilty and were released decades ago. 

Douglas' mother, Senoria Douglas, has also signed an affidavit saying Cynthia Douglas wished to recant. "Cynthia wanted Kevin Strickland out of prison, because she picked the wrong person, and she strongly felt that Kevin Strickland was innocent," she said.

The email and other evidence have convinced Jean Peters Baker, the prosecuting attorney in Missouri with authority over Strickland's case, that Strickland "is factually innocent of the charges for which he was convicted in 1979." Baker said in May that, based on the evidence known today, she "would not charge" Strickland with "any crime." Baker says "Strickland’s conviction should be set aside, he should be promptly released, and he deserves public exoneration."

The US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri also reviewed the evidence and came to the "independent conclusion" that Strickland's "conviction should be set aside, and the evidence supports Kevin Strickland’s actual innocence." 

This summer, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers passed legislation "giving Baker the ability to revisit cases like Strickland’s in the court that handed down the conviction." The new law allows Baker to make a motion "to vacate or set aside the judgment" based on "clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence...that undermines the confidence in the judgment." And that's exactly what Baker did.

And yet, Strickland remains incarcerated to this day. That's primarily because of one man — Eric Schmitt, the Attorney General of Missouri. Schmitt, who is currently running for U.S. Senate, insists that Douglas never intended to recant her identification and that Strickland is guilty. Schmitt is fighting aggressively in court to defeat Baker's motion. 

The racial dynamics of Strickland's trial

Strickland faced two trials for his alleged involvement in the 1978 murders. The first ended in a mistrial after the lone Black juror refused to convict. The prosecutor at the time blamed the mistrial not on "a tainted identification and weak physical evidence" but the decision to seat a Black juror. The prosector "described the seating of that juror as 'careless' and a 'mistake' that he would not repeat." 

In the second trial, the prosecutor noted the race of every potential juror and "used its first four peremptory strikes to remove the only four Black jurors remaining after the for-cause challenges." The prosecution "did not provide a race-neutral reason justifying its targeting of these individuals." Instead, the prosecutor "objected to any inquiry about the basis for its strikes," claiming the State "has a right to exercise [those strikes] in any way it chooses without explanation therefor."

Targeting Black jurors without a "race-neutral" explanation would not be permitted today. But since Strickland's second trial preceded the 1986 case of Batson v. Kentucky, the strikes were upheld. Strickland was convicted "by an all-white jury in a trial, before a white judge, with white attorneys representing all parties."

A Black juror may have been more aware of a key weakness in Douglas' identification. Douglas told police that the shooter was wearing his hair "natural" — in a short Afro. But the next day, in his booking photo, Strickland's hair is braided. 

Critically, the booking photo shows "the plait growing away from the scalp." Shelly Smith, who has been braiding hair in Kansas City for 15 years, estimates the braids were at least a week old. Smith says the photo shows "new growth" and "you cannot have new growth within 24 hours." According to Smith, you can "frizz up" braids but "you cannot create new growth" because it's a "natural process." 

Retired Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, who was the first Black judge on the Superior Court of Northern California, said Strickland suffered because everyone involved in the case was white. "There is no question that a … Black person raised in a Black community, who was either a judge, or an attorney on either side, or a juror, would absolutely know right away that something was wrong," Hazzard Cordell said. 

The man trying to keep Strickland behind bars

The biggest obstacle to Strickland's freedom is Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is involved in a competitive campaign for the Republican nomination to be the next U.S. Senator for Missouri. Schmitt has "churned out litigation designed to win favor with Donald Trump’s angry, aggrieved Republican base." He has filed lawsuits opposing mask mandates, sued to force the Biden administration to resume construction of the border wall, and "spearheaded a legal brief in favor of a lawsuit brought by [Texas Attorney General Ken] Paxton that sought to overturn presidential election results in Pennsylvania and other key swing states won by Biden."

According to the Kansas City Star, Schmitt's actions in the Strickland case are designed to convey the message that Schmitt "is tough on crime and is putting up a fight to keep a convicted criminal behind bars." It's part of a broader effort to show "he can save Missourians from liberal fecklessness and relentless government overreach." 

"As attorney general, I've spent my time defending President Trump and the America First agenda," Schmitt said earlier this year.

In court filings, Schmitt's office claims that Douglas' 2009 email is "remarkably unreliable" and insists that it can't be determined whether Douglas actually sent it, “let alone absent coercive pressure.” The Missouri Attorney General is also emphasizing a claim that Strickland "offered the victim money the day after the killings to keep 'her mouth shut.'" That claim was never mentioned in either trial. Schmitt accused Strickland, who has maintained his innocence since 1978, of working "to evade responsibility." 

Schmitt has also pushed for repeated delays in consideration of Baker's motion. In October, Strickland's 85-year-old mother, Rosetta Savanah Thorton, died. Strickland had said that "getting to see his mother again before she passed was his top priority." Strickland was not able to attend the funeral. Strickland's daughter, who was 7 months old in 1978, is now in her 40s. 

A co-author of the new law, Missouri Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo (D), said "the legislation was not intended to allow the attorney general’s office to file motions in relation to the hearing." Nevertheless, courts have let Schmitt's office participate, allowing Schmitt to square off against other prosecutors who believe Strickland is innocent.

Last week, Strickland, who is now confined to a wheelchair, entered the courtroom for the first time in decades for his evidentiary hearing under the new law. It's unknown when the judge will issue a ruling.