“If we don’t stop at the gravesite first, I’m going to get out of the car and I’m going to try to make it there on my hands and knees,” Strickland told The Washington Post.
Strickland will get that opportunity.
A judge on Tuesday exonerated him after more than 43 years in prison, making his case the longest confirmed wrongful-conviction case in Missouri’s history — and one of the longest-standing such convictions in the nation’s history. He was released shortly after the judge issued his decision.
Strickland was convicted of the 1978 murders of Sherrie Black, 22, Larry Ingram, 21, and John Walker, 20, even though no physical evidence linked him to the crime scene, family members provided alibis and the admitted killers said he was not there. The case was built on the testimony of Cynthia Douglas, the sole survivor and eyewitness, who later attempted multiple times to recant her testimony because she said she was pressured by police.
“Under these unique circumstances, the Court’s confidence in Strickland’s conviction is so undermined that it cannot stand, and the judgment of conviction must be set aside,” Judge James Welsh wrote Tuesday. “The State of Missouri shall immediately discharge Kevin Bernard Strickland from its custody.”
Tricia Rojo Bushnell, his attorney and executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said Strickland’s case was “a great example of how much a system cares about finality over fairness.”
While legal experts and elected officials in both parties supported Strickland’s case for exoneration, top Republicans in Missouri pushed back. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt (R), who is running for the U.S. Senate in 2022, said he believed Strickland committed the murders. Andrew Clarke, an assistant attorney general, argued that Strickland not only received a fair trial in 1979 but has “worked to evade responsibility” for decades.
Gov. Mike Parson (R) agreed with them, saying before Strickland was exonerated that pardoning him would not be a “priority.” Not long afterward, he pardoned Mark and Patricia McCloskey — a White couple who gained national notoriety for brandishing guns at peaceful social-justice protesters in St. Louis last year and pleaded guilty to firearms charges.
Spokesmen for Parson and Schmitt did not make them available for interviews.
Days before finding out he would be exonerated, Strickland spoke to The Post about his life and his chance at exoneration. Even with the groundswell of support, he said, decades of imprisonment left Strickland “pessimistic” about whether he would be released.
“I mean, I’m hoping for the best,” he said, “but I’m anticipating the worst.”
‘A fundamental American life’
Born June 7, 1959, Strickland was one of five children raised by parents who worked in the food service industry in a south Kansas City neighborhood. They lived across the street from his grandparents and great uncle, a handyman.
“We were pretty close-knit. We played together and went to school together,” said L.R. Strickland, 65, his older brother. “It was pretty much a fundamental American life.”
When he wasn’t busy as a junior deacon at his church, Kevin Strickland found ways to keep himself occupied — playing baseball, building go-karts from wheels that had fallen off old shopping carts, fishing and hunting rabbits, squirrels and groundhogs with his great uncle.
“Those were my best memories — my childhood,” he said.
But after his parents split when he was 16, Strickland said, he lost direction. His grades suffered as he and his siblings were largely left unsupervised at home. He began picking up “bad teenage habits” such as drinking and smoking marijuana, he said.
In early 1978, Strickland, then 18, became the father of a baby girl. He was eyeing potentially following his brother’s footsteps and joining the military, to give his newborn a chance at stability. His father also wanted him to stop his loose association with Vincent Bell, a neighborhood acquaintance who had come home from a stay in juvenile detention.
Strickland had a friendship with Bell’s sisters and would drive their father’s car for him regularly since the adult did not have a driver’s license, he said.
“My father told me to stay away from that boy: ‘He is bad news,’” Strickland recalled.
On April 25, 1978, Bell, 21, along with Kilm Adkins, 19, Terry Abbott, 21, and a 16-year-old, stopped on their way home to talk to Strickland outside his house, Strickland said. They chatted for a few minutes before Strickland told them he was going to spend time with his daughter.
The brief exchange ended, Strickland said, and he didn’t think much of it.
‘They picking up the wrong man’
Kansas City was grappling with high rates of violent crime at the time. In 1978, the city had 120 slayings, an increase of more than 20 percent from a decade earlier, according to data from the police department’s Citizens Task Force on Violence.
After they chatted with Strickland, Adkins and Abbott talked about what they could do to get back at Ingram, who had won $300 from Adkins in a craps game by using loaded dice, according to court records. To get retribution, they would pay a visit to Ingram’s rented bungalow on South Benton Avenue, where he hosted gambling parties.
Douglas, who was dating Ingram, had joined Black and Walker in drinking cognac, smoking weed and watching “Three’s Company” when Bell, Adkins and others stormed in and tied all four up. After plundering the home, they killed Ingram, Black and Walker in execution-style slayings, court records state. Douglas, who suffered nonfatal gunshot wounds to her thigh, slumped next to Black, her best friend, and pretended to be dead until the group left.
She freed herself and limped out of the house looking for help, eventually finding a 17-year-old girl outside, according to police records. Douglas begged for a hiding spot: “They don’t know I’m alive. They think they killed me.”
Around 10 p.m., Strickland was watching television when he was stunned by a news bulletin about the triple murder, he said. Strickland had stayed home that night, he said, and had been on the phone and playing games after eating dinner with family members. His alibi was verified by numerous relatives.
As Strickland’s girlfriend was dropping off their 7-week-old daughter for him the next morning, she allowed two Kansas City police detectives to enter the home, he said. They asked whether he would come to the police station to answer some questions. He asked police whether he had a choice. The answer was no.
Strickland, who acknowledged he had been drinking and smoking, said he was offended by what he called “stupid questions” by police on the ride to the station, such as them asking him how many guns he owned. In response, he “snapped” at them, he said, responding with, “I’ve got as many guns as you got.”
“I’m not thinking this is part of a police report or I’m under investigation,” he said. “I’m not thinking I’m a suspect at any point.”
When he got to the police station and the questioning intensified, it hit him: “Y’all are starting to accuse me of something.” It was at that point he realized there was a surviving victim — someone who was an acquaintance. He requested a suspect lineup that would easily clear his name for a crime he told them he did not commit.
Douglas — rattled less than 24 hours after she saw three of her friends brutally murdered — was shown a lineup of Black men that included Strickland. Eric Wesson, editor of the Kansas City Call, a Black-owned weekly newspaper, said she told him years later that she still had blood and brain matter on her face and in her hair. Douglas later acknowledged that police suggested she select a man in the lineup who went by “Nordy,” Strickland’s nickname.
“Just pick Strickland out of the lineup and we’ll be done,” Douglas recalled, according to court records. “It will all go away, you can go on, and you don’t have to worry about these guys no more.”
Douglas’s family has said Richard Zoulek, the detective who conducted the lineup, was the one who pressured her. John O’Connor, who worked as an investigator for the prosecutor’s office, described Zoulek in court this month as a “cowboy” known to have a bad reputation. Months after the killings, Zoulek fatally shot his wife and then took his own life, according to media reports.
Strickland said he was in “total disbelief” once police began reading him his Miranda rights.
“I’m thinking this lineup is going to turn the key and I’m going to walk on down to the bus station and go on about my business,” Strickland said. “Next thing I know, the lineup happens and police come over and tell me, ‘You’re under arrest.’”
Bell and Adkins were eventually arrested in June 1978 and charged with murder. Abbott was a suspect, but he and the 16-year-old were not charged. Before they were apprehended, Adkins told Bell that Strickland’s arrest was a good sign for them because police were “starting off wrong,” according to Bell’s court testimony.
“They picking up the wrong man,” Adkins said, according to Bell.
‘My life is gone’
Days before Thanksgiving, a bitter Midwest wind had overtaken Cameron — a small, flat city an hour north of Kansas City that is home to the Western Missouri Correctional Center.
Strickland, who uses a wheelchair and has faced health issues, entered one of the prison’s common areas wearing a gray uniform with a well-worn tag identifying him as Inmate 36922.
“You came here from D.C. for me?” he asked. “Well, let’s talk.”
His original trial in 1979 hinged on Douglas’s testimony. As the legal process went on, Douglas grew more convinced she had seen Strickland, even if she originally told police she did not know for sure. When asked by a county prosecutor whether there was “any doubt in your mind that the fellow with the shotgun was Kevin Strickland,” Douglas replied, “It is a fact.”
The trial ended with a hung jury after the only Black juror refused to find him guilty. Soon thereafter, Strickland was retried, this time with an all-White jury, and was convicted of the triple murder. Wesson, the editor, recalled that many in the Black community believed the quick decision was “racist to a degree.”
“They had a preconceived idea, regardless of what evidence was presented, that he was guilty,” he said.
When the jury announced a guilty verdict, Strickland, then 19, let out “a flood of tears” that felt voluminous enough to fill an ocean he had never seen.
“I didn’t know I could cry like that,” he said. “I thought, ‘My life is gone.’”
His brother, L.R. Strickland, was bewildered. But he wasn’t necessarily surprised, he said, given the mood in Kansas City and enthusiasm for “biblical justice.”
“I believe this city wanted some type of satisfaction and wanted someone to be held accountable,” he said. “I was just relieved my brother wasn’t given the death penalty.”
Four months after Kevin Strickland went to prison, Bell told the court that Douglas “made a hell of a mistake” by mixing up Strickland with the teenager allegedly with Bell’s crew at the scene of the crime. Bell, who along with Adkins received a 20-year sentence for their guilty pleas, stressed to the court that Strickland was not with them.
“I’m telling you the truth today that Kevin Strickland wasn’t there at the house that day,” Bell said in 1979. “I’m telling you the truth. Kevin Strickland wasn’t at that house.”
Bell died earlier this year at 64. Abbott, who was not charged in the triple murder but is serving a prison sentence for a robbery in Colorado, echoed Bell, telling an investigator in 2019 that there “couldn’t be a more innocent person” than Strickland. Adkins and the alleged accomplice who was a teen at the time did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Strickland’s time in prison has taken a toll on the baby he left behind. His daughter, who requested that her name not be used, for privacy reasons, told The Post that their relationship has been “challenged” from the start, especially when she would visit the prison as a child.
“I remember asking questions like, ‘Why is he here?’” she said. “But he always said how much he cared about me and would say, ‘When I get out of here …’ He always said ‘when,’ not ‘if.’”
As Strickland was fighting to have his case reexamined, Douglas was simultaneously trying to get someone to listen to her.
The first time Douglas approached a prosecutor after Bell’s testimony to indicate Strickland was not the right man, the prosecutor allegedly told her to go away and threatened her with a perjury charge, according to an affidavit signed by her ex-husband, Ronald Richardson. A similar incident happened in the 1990s, according to testimony from her sister, Cecile “Cookie” Simmons.
Wesson, who was friends with Douglas and Black growing up, said Douglas came to him for guidance in 2004, a shell of the funny, vibrant young woman he remembered. She contacted him again in 2009, wondering how she could get her recantation out there. He suggested drafting an email to an organization that would listen, such as the Midwest Innocence Project, a nonprofit group that aids wrongfully convicted individuals.
“I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused,” Douglas wrote, according to court records. “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.”
Strickland, too, had reached out to the Midwest Innocence Project. After Bushnell joined the organization, she was tasked with going through older applications in a backlog of cases. Immediately, she saw Strickland’s case as “a shaky conviction.”
“I started to think, ‘What’s going on here?’” Bushnell said. “You get into the details and you see how Bell said clearly what happened and who did it.”
But when Strickland found out that Douglas had died in 2015 at 57, before she had the chance to formally recant her testimony, he said it felt as if his chances at exoneration had also expired.
“I think I cursed God: ‘Why me? Why did you tease me like this, God?’” he said. “I apologize to Him every day, but I cursed God.”
‘My chance to finally speak the truth’
His push for exoneration seemed to have stalled for good before his story was given a jolt of life by way of a Kansas City Star investigation last year reexamining the case. A couple of months later, Bushnell contacted Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and asked her to open an investigation. The county attorney agreed. Among the new findings: Dozens of fingerprints, including those on the shotgun used in the murders, did not belong to Strickland.
“Every piece of evidence we looked at didn’t point to Kevin Strickland,” Baker told The Post.
When it was time for the evidentiary hearing in Jackson County Circuit Court, dozens of supporting witnesses were called to the stand — including Strickland.
“It was my chance to finally speak the truth about the entire situation,” he said. “I had to let it be known I had nothing to do with this crime.”
Days before the judge exonerated him on Tuesday, family, friends and legal experts interviewed said they felt cautiously optimistic or at least hopeful that Strickland would be home for his first Thanksgiving in decades. The stoic inmate broke down last week thinking about how if he were to be exonerated that his mother wouldn’t be there to celebrate. Rosetta Thornton died in August at 85.
Strickland did, however, still have the prospect of seeing the ocean. Before he exited the room for what turned out to be one of his final prison interviews, Strickland asked, “How are you going to live on planet Earth when you don’t see the ocean one time?”