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A Kansas City man has spent four decades behind bars for a triple homicide that prosecutors now believe he didn’t commit.
“All those who have reviewed the evidence in recent months agree—Kevin Strickland deserves to be exonerated,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in a statement from the prosecutor’s office calling for Strickland’s release. “This is a profound error we must correct now.”
Strickland’s attorneys with the Midwest Innocence Project and the firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner have now filed a petition urging the Missouri Supreme Court to release and exonerate the now 61-year-old, who is wheelchair bound and has spent more than two-thirds of his life behind bars, according to a statement from his attorneys.
Strickland was convicted in 1979 of killing Larry Ingram, Sherrie Black and John Walker and injuring a fourth victim, Cynthia Douglas, in a Kansas City home in 1978.
Strickland’s conviction “rested nearly entirely” on Douglas’ eyewitness account of the shooting despite being “traumatized herself in the triple murder,” according to a letter from Baker and Chief Deputy Daniel M. Nelson to Strickland’s attorneys describing their conclusions in the case.
Douglas—who had admitted to smoking marijuana and drinking cognac before the April 25, 1978 shooting — was shot in the leg and pretended to be dead during the gunfire before later crawling out of the house to get help, according to local station KCTV.
Four gunmen stormed into the home, tied up the occupants and ransacked the house before shooting those inside, including Douglas’ boyfriend John Walker, 20, and her best friend Sherrie Black, 22, The Kansas City Star reports.
As the sole survivor, Douglas immediately identified two of the men involved as Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins but told authorities she only got “a glance” at a third suspect who she didn’t know, according to the letter from prosecutors.
She changed her mind the next day, identifying the third man as Strickland—someone she'd known before the shooting—only after her sister’s boyfriend Randy Harris suggested to her that he could have been there after noting he had seen Strickland with the two other suspects the morning of the shootings.
She would later also claim that she had felt pressured by police to make the identification.
“Just pick Strickland out of the lineup and we’ll be done, it will all go away, you can go on and you don’t have to worry about these guys no more,” Douglas said she was told, according to KCTV.
Douglas later testified against Strickland in court in two separate trials. The first resulted in a hung jury after the only black juror on the case had remained a holdout, the local paper reports.
He was convicted of one count of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder by an all-white jury at a second trial held two months later. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 50 years and sent off to prison.
Bell pleaded guilty to the killings in 1979—but he insisted at the time that Strickland wasn't involved.
“I am telling you the truth today that Kevin Strickland wasn’t there at the house that day,” Bell said during his plea hearing, according to the local paper.
Adkins also pleaded guilty and he too asserted that Strickland had not participated in the crime.
Both men even named an alternate suspect “who was short and light-complected like Strickland” and had been seen with the co-defendants that day, prosecutors said in the letter to Strickland’s attorneys. But authorities did nothing to further investigate the claims.
After Bell’s plea hearing, Douglas’ ex-husband would later tell investigators she became convinced she had been wrong about Strickland being involved. He claimed that she had tried to reach out to someone at the prosecutor’s office at the time but was “rebuffed.”
Adkins and Bell each served just about 10 years behind bars before being released as part of their plea deals, while Strickland remained behind bars serving a life sentence.
Over the following decades, Douglas repeatedly expressed her doubts to family members, until finally reaching out the Midwest Innocence Project in February of 2009 to report she believed a man had been “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,” she wrote, according to prosecutors.
However, no immediate action was taken and she later died in 2015.
The Midwest Innocence Project reached out to the Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney in November of 2020 after an article about the case appeared in The Kansas City Star earlier that year.
Prosecutors opened an investigation through the Conviction Integrity Unit, which presented the case to about 20 senior and homicide prosecutors, who suggested a more thorough investigation.
Prosecutors now believe that Strickland—who has long maintained his innocence—wasn’t involved in the shootings and are advocating for his exoneration.
“Reliable, corroborated evidence now proves that Mr. Strickland is factually innocent of the charges for which he was convicted in 1979,” Baker and Nelson wrote in their letter.
In its own statement about the case, the Midwest Innocence Project commended prosecutors for their decision and their efforts to free Strickland.
“We are grateful to Jean Peters Baker and the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office for their support of Mr. Strickland’s innocence and their work reviewing his case,” MIP executive director Tricia Rojo Bushnell said. “The evidence of Mr. Strickland’s innocence is clear, and we applaud the prosecutor’s office for fulfilling their duty as ministers of justice to ensure that justice is done—in this case, doing everything possible to exonerate an innocent man.”
The judge who presided over the trial and the lead prosecutor in the case are both dead; however, prosecutors said another member of the prosecution team, James Bell, has reviewed the evidence and agrees that the conviction should be set aside.
“The last thing I want to see is someone serving a 50-year sentence, or even a day, for something they didn’t do,” Bell said according to prosecutors’ letter.
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, a member of the Kansas City, Missouri Board of Police Commissioners, also reviewed the findings and concluded he was convinced the conviction should be set aside.
“Now that we know, he must be released soon, rather than quibble over procedural hurdles,” Lucas said. “This man has served 43 years for something he did not do.”
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