Kevin Strickland, a 62-year-old male, was released by senior judge James Welsh in Jackson County on “new fingerprint evidence” after spending 43 years behind bars at the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri for a triple murder he did not commit.
Strickland, who is black, was never at the crime scene when the murders were committed. He was wrongly identified by an eyewitness, Cynthia Douglas, who feigned death at the crime scene. By doing so, she could not get a good look at the three perpetrators. No other physical evidence placed Strickland at the scene. Instead, he was at his home several miles away with his family after the murderers, Vincent Bell and Kim Adkins, both had visited Strickland at his home prior to committing the crime in an adjoining neighborhood.
Douglas initially had serious doubts at a physical lineup identifying Strickland and told the police so. Nonetheless, after suggestions at the lineup by the police, she reluctantly identified Strickland, leading to his arrest. The prosecution presented no other evidence linking Strickland to the crime scene at his trial, including any fingerprint evidence on any murder weapon or any other evidence at the scene. Presumably, this exculpatory fingerprint evidence should have been presented by the prosecution to the defense prior to Strickland’s criminal trials, but was not.
The first jury trial of Strickland in Jackson County, a suburb outside Kansas City, Missouri, resulted in a hung jury. The sole black man on the panel of eleven other white jurors refused to join the majority in recommending a guilty verdict. On retrial, Strickland was convicted of the triple murder and sentenced to a 50-year life sentence by an all-white jury.
Within four months of Strickland’s wrongful conviction, after Bell and Adkins both pled guilty to the murders receiving respective 20-year sentences, both men filed affidavits with the court telling the Jackson County prosecution that Strickland was never at the crime scene. They further stated that they had made a “hell of a mistake” by confusing Strickland with another teenager who had accompanied them to the crime scene but was never charged.
In addition, the sole witness to identify Strickland in the murders, Douglas, recanted her testimony on two different occasions over the course of the next twenty years to the Jackson County prosecutors, only to be told that she should “go home or they would charge her with perjury” based upon her prior testimony. Before she could give her sworn testimony at that time, Douglas died at the age of 57 in 2015. When he heard that devastating news, Strickland felt that he had little hope of ever being freed at any rehearing because of this key witness’ death.
However, a rehearing was granted earlier this year on the petition of the Midwest Innocence Project, who agreed to represent Strickland after reviewing Strickland’s case and finding the exonerating gun fingerprint evidence not tying Strickland to the murders. As an aside, this lack of fingerprint evidence should have been turned over by the Jackson County prosecutors to the defense, which could have been used to show Strickland’s innocence at his 1978 criminal trials.
The Innocence Project lawyer handling the case also found an email in the file from Douglas who had previously written them, “I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused. 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 could.”
The rehearing evidence presented showed that the murder weapons did not have any of Strickland’s prints on them, only those of Bell and Adkins. The statement of the deceased victim-witness Douglas, coupled with those of Bell and Adkins, and the testimony of Strickland were considered by the court in releasing Strickland before Thanksgiving this year.
Unfortunately, Strickland was unable to hug his dementia-stricken 85-year-old mother, Rosetta Thornton, who died this past August before his release. He is still able to fulfill his long-standing wish to visit the ocean, a place he has yet to see in his lifetime.
Strickland’s release after a 43-year confinement makes his lengthy incarceration one of the longest wrongful imprisonments in the nation’s history according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Story as reported by: The Washington Post and CNN