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Kevin Strickland
Kevin Strickland is pictured in an interview room at Western Missouri Correctional Center on Nov. 5, 2019, in Cameron, Missouri. A judge's decision on Tuesday to release Strickland was made possible by a new Missouri law. (AP file photo: The Kansas City Star)

New Missouri law leads to longtime inmate’s release

LIBERTY, Mo. — A judge’s decision on Tuesday to release longtime inmate Kevin Strickland, of Kansas City, was made possible by a new Missouri law intended to free people who were imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.

Strickland, 62, was convicted in 1979 of a triple murder in Kansas City. He always maintained  that he wasn’t he wasn’t at the crime scene, and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced in May that her office’s review of case convinced her that Strickland was telling the truth.

After the Missouri Supreme Court in June declined to hear Strickland’s petition for release, Peters Baker used the new state law to seek an evidentiary hearing, which was held in early November. Judge James Welsh ruled Tuesday that Strickland had been wrongfully convicted and ordered him released.

What does the law say?

The law, which was a provision of a larger crime bill, gives prosecutors the authority to seek a hearing if they have new evidence that the convicted person might have been wrongfully convicted.

The hearings are held in the county where the inmate was convicted and the decision whether to release the inmate is up to the judge.

What prompted the law?

The case of Lamar Johnson, a longtime inmate in St. Louis, prompted lawmakers to pass the new law. Johnson has spent 26 years behind bars for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner sought a new trial for Johnson, saying she had a duty to correct past wrongs, including what she believes was Johnson’s wrongful conviction. But the state Supreme Court in March refused to grant Johnson a new trial after Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt argued that Gardner didn’t have the authority to seek a new trial so many years after the case was decided.

The court said its ruling wasn’t about whether Johnson was innocent, but was intended to address only whether prosecutors could appeal the dismissal of a motion for a new trial years after an inmate was convicted.

State Sen. John Rizzo, a Democrat from Kansas City, said that ruling pushed him and other lawmakers to write the law with input from prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers and representatives from groups that work to free prisoners.

Rizzo said supporters of the law were concerned that the state had no mechanism for prosecutors to help an inmate even when evidence showed the person was innocent.

“The common theme for everyone was that ethically we have an obligation, if we know someone is in jail and they shouldn’t be, to remedy that situation,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo said proponents of the law intended for prosecutors to be in “the driver’s seat” during the hearings and for the attorney general’s office to be only “an active observer,” that was allowed to petition if it felt the law was being abused or if it had its own evidence to bring forward.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, declined to answer questions about the attorney general’s interpretation of the new law.

 

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