Mo. Man Jailed 42 Years After 1978 Triple-Murder Is Innocent, Prosecutor Says
Kevin Strickland was convicted after pivotal testimony from a lone eyewitness who later recanted her account
A Missouri man who has served more than 42 years in prison for a triple-murder should be set free because the evidence used to convict him doesn't add up, says the prosecutor whose office put the man behind bars.
"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 released Monday. "This is a profound error we must correct now."
Strickland was 18 in 1978 when the sole surviving witness of an attack in a Kansas City home that killed three others — Sherrie Black, John Walker, and Larry Ingram — identified him as a participant in the shooting. The witness, Cynthia Douglas, was shot in the leg and said she survived by playing dead.
Immediately after the shooting, Douglas named two other men, Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins, who both wound up pleading guilty.
But that night, despite knowing Strickland personally, Douglas could not identify a third man holding a shotgun — and didn't change her mind until the next day, when her sister's boyfriend suggested it might have been Strickland, according to a letter written by Baker to advocates with the Midwest Innocence Project.
Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Sign up forPEOPLE's free True Crime newsletter for breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases.
"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, in a recollection shared with members of Strickland's legal team, reports KCTV.
Douglas — whose testimony proved pivotal in Strickland's conviction for the murders — eventually recanted after hearing the confessions of others, including Bell, who said in 1979, "I'm telling the State and the society out there right now that Kevin Strickland wasn't there at that house," reports KCTV.
In 2009, Douglas herself contacted the Innocence Project, according to the TV station.
"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.
Douglas has since died, but "for many years until her death in 2015, Douglas repeatedly expressed to her family members and others both her doubts about her identification of Strickland and her wish to see him exonerated," according to the Innocence Project.
Strickland, now 61, has spent more than two thirds of his life in prison, after the two men who pleaded guilty said he did not accompany them or two other accomplices during the April 25, 1978, incident, according to an investigation published last fall by The Kansas City Star.
On Monday the Innocence Project and its partner attorneys filed a petition asking the Missouri Supreme Court to release and exonerate Strickland.
"Once she became aware of her mistake, Ms. Douglas did everything she could to free Mr. Strickland and she bears no responsibility for the years Mr. Strickland has lost," Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Innocence Project, said in a statement announcing the petition. "Mr. Strickland's conviction was the failure of a system and the injustice of his continued incarceration harms not only him, but the families of the victims, who must continue to relive this horrible crime as we fight to correct this injustice."
A hung jury initially failed to convict Strickland, "but he was convicted at a second trial by an all-white jury based almost entirely on the unreliable eyewitness identification of the surviving victim," according to the Innocence Project.
Baker's statement on behalf of the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office, which began reviewing the case last fall after the Star investigation and a request from an attorney for the Innocence Project, said: "For a variety of reasons, including Strickland representing himself on appeal, the full picture of this error of justice was not made clear until recent months."
It added: "The judge who presided over the trial, as well as the lead prosecutor on the case, Jim Humphrey, are both deceased. Another member of the trial team — James Bell, now an attorney in private practice — reviewed the new evidence and stated that it indicates that Strickland should be set free. Bell added: 'If Jim Humphrey were alive, and was made aware of Cynthia's efforts to recant, he would be leading the effort to get Kevin Strickland free.'"
According to the Innocence Project: "In addition to Douglas' recantation, Strickland's innocence is also supported by sworn statements from the true perpetrators, declaring Strickland's innocence and, in the case of two of the codefendants, naming the individual for whom Strickland was mistaken. The first of these confessions came just months after Strickland's conviction, at co-defendant Vincent Bell's plea hearing. As part of his plea, Bell described what occurred on the night of the crime and made clear that 'Kevin Strickland wasn't there at the house that day.'"
Last month the prosecuting attorney and her staff met with family members of victims Ingram, Black and Walker. "All expressed that they still, decades later, suffered from the trauma related to losing their loved ones," said the statement from the prosecutor's office. "They were surprised by the news that Strickland was not guilty, yet they believed the justice system has an obligation to release anyone wrongly accused."
No timetable has been released for the Missouri Supreme Court to consider the petition for Strickland's release and exoneration.
"The truth of Mr. Strickland's innocence was known over 42 years ago," Bob Hoffman, an attorney who also represents Strickland, said in a news release from the Innocence Project. "Strickland's case is yet one more example of how long and difficult it is to overturn a wrongful conviction. It shouldn't be this hard."