Kansas City, Missouri — A Kansas City man who’s been jailed more than 40 years for a triple murder adamantly and repeatedly denied having anything to do with the crime during testimony Monday in an evidentiary hearing that could lead to his freedom. If he winds up being released, his confinement would become the longest wrongful imprisonment in Missouri history, CBS News’ Eugene Ansley points out.
Kevin Strickland entered a building he hadn’t been in for more than 40 years when he arrived in the courtroom, Ansley noted.
Wearing an orange jumpsuit, red shirt, and facemask, Strickland was wheeled in by security guards. He developed spinal stenosis in 2016 and can’t stand for more than three or four minutes.
Strickland has been sporting a beard since his mother died in September. He was hoping to see her as a free man before she passed.
Strickland was the first witness to testify, reports CBS Kansas City, Missouri affiliate KCTV. He told reporters he never thought this day would come. He testified that he had nothing to do with the killings.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with these murders. By no means was I anywhere close to that crime scene,” Strickland insisted, saying he’s been working toward his freedom since he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1979.
Jackson County Prosecutor. She said evidence used to convict him had been recanted or disproven since his trial.
“This is a triple murder in which three young people were executed,” Peters Baker said Monday. “The tragedy was made much, much worse by Kevin Strickland’s conviction.”
The evidentiary hearing in Strickland’s case comes after months of delays caused by legal procedures and canceled hearings prompted mostly by motions filed by the state attorney general’s office. Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, has said he believes Strickland is guilty of the murders.
Schmitt has consistently fought Baker for authority over the case, CBS News’ Ansley says.
The two sides lay out their cases
Attorneys for Strickland and the Attorney General’s office indicated during opening statements that statements from Cynthia Douglas, the only survivor of the shootings, identifying Strickland as the shooter would be central to determining Strickland’s fate. Strickland’s supporters said Douglas recanted her identification before she died.
Andrew Clarke, an assistant prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office, said evidence existed to show Strickland was guilty. He said recorded phone calls between Douglas and her husband while he was incarcerated would show she was not interested in helping Strickland prove his innocence.
Clarke also said one of Strickland’s fingerprints was found on a car used the night of the killings. It was owned by Vincent Bell, who later pleaded guilty to the murders.
Strickland testified that he often drove the car for Bell, who didn’t have a driver’s license, and he was surprised more of his fingerprints weren’t found on the car. Strickland also acknowledged he gave Bell some shotgun shells two to three weeks before the killings after Bell said he wanted to test a shotgun he was given. But Strickland maintained he didn’t know they would be used in a triple murder.
Strickland said he drank beer and smoked marijuana before police came to his home to question him about the killings.
During cross-examination on Monday from assistant prosecutor Christine Krug, Strickland acknowledged it was the first time in 43 years that he’d ever said he was under the influence at the time.
The case’s history
Strickland, 62, was convicted in the April 25, 1978, fatal shootings of Larry Ingram, 21; John Walker, 20; and Sherrie Black, 22, in Kansas City.
Strickland, a Black man, saw his first trial end in a hung jury when the only Black juror, a woman, held out for acquittal. After his second trial in 1979, he was convicted by an all-white jury of one count of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder.
Strickland has always maintained that he was home watching television and had nothing to do with the killings, which happened when he was 18 years old.
Two other men convicted in the killings later insisted that Strickland wasn’t at the crime scene, The Kansas City Star reported. And Douglas, the only eyewitness to the killings, recanted her testimony that Strickland was the shooter.
Lone eyewitness’ account in spotlight
During afternoon testimony, Douglas’ daughter, mother, sister and a former co-worker all testified that she had told them she identified the wrong shooter and wanted to help exonerate Strickland.
Senoria Strickland said her daughter told her police pressured her to identify Strickland and she was was upset and depressed that she had chosen “the wrong guy.”
During his testimony, Strickland denied suggestions that he offered Douglas $300 to “keep her mouth shut” and said he had never visited the house where the murders occurred before they happened.
Strickland said he went to the scene at the request of a friend who was Vincent Bell’s sister. He said he cooperated with officers at the scene and later at the police station because he “knew the system worked and I would not be convicted of something I didn’t do.”
Strickland watched the testimony from a wheelchair due to his spinal stenosis. Before the hearing began, he told reporters he was “scared.”
In June, the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear Strickland’s petition. Republican Governor Mike Parson also refused to pardon Strickland, saying he wasn’t convinced that Strickland was innocent.
New law playing pivotal role
Hearings were scheduled in August in DeKalb County, where Strickland is imprisoned. Those hearings were canceled after Peters Baker used a new state law to seek an evidentiary hearing i n Jackson County, where Strickland was convicted. The law allows local prosecutors to challenge convictions if they believe the defendant did not commit the crime.
A hearing scheduled for Sept. 2 was delayed after Schmitt’s office sought more time for the court to hear several motions his office filed in the case.
Schmitt sought to have all 16th Circuit judges in Jackson County recused from presiding over the evidentiary hearing because the presiding judge in that circuit had said he agreed that Strickland was wrongfully convicted.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Sept. 30 that the Jackson County judges should be recused from the hearing to avoid any suggestions of impropriety or bias, delaying another hearing. Retired Senior Judge James Welsh was then appointed to preside over the case.