Kevin Strickland was exonerated in a 1978 triple murder, but under Missouri law, he is not eligible for any compensation from the state for the 43 years he spent behind bars — one of the longest-standing wrongful convictions in the nation’s history.
“Missouri is not going to pay Mr. Strickland a dime, but the whole world is going to make sure he’s compensated,” Tricia Rojo Bushnell, Strickland’s attorney and executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said in a phone interview Friday with The Washington Post.
Strickland was released Tuesday after Judge James Welsh ruled that the 62-year-old man’s conviction should be tossed. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, family members provided alibis and the admitted killers said he was not present when Sherrie Black, 22, Larry Ingram, 21, and John Walker, 20, were shot to death. The case had been built on the testimony of a sole eyewitness who later tried to recant her testimony.
Taken into custody as a teenager, Strickland has no retirement savings, no work history to help him get Social Security benefits — and no compensation from the state of Missouri, which by law only grants people compensation when they are proven innocent through DNA testing.
“It’s a very small minority of people who receive that,” Bushnell said. “The vast majority of folks who are exonerated are exonerated through non-DNA evidence and the vast majority of crimes do not involve DNA at all. So what we see in Missouri is folks get home and they are provided nothing.”
Since Bushnell set up the crowdsourcing campaign in June — something she said she does for all clients who are exonerated — more than 19,000 donors have raised more than $1 million, most pledging small donations. The highest amount yet — $10,000 — came from Redwood Pediatrics in Kansas City, Mo.
“We thought it would be an important way to show that he has support,” John Billharz, president of the pediatric practice, said after making the donation.
Bushnell said the response from donors has been “overwhelming.”
“For us and for Mr. Strickland, what we see is an entire community — or entire world — that recognizes the harms that wrongful convictions cause and that there needs to be some sort of compensation,” she said.
Kansas City was grappling with an uptick in crime when the triple murder took place in 1978. Ingram, Black, Walker and Cynthia Douglas had been drinking cognac, smoking weed and watching “Three’s Company” at a rented bungalow when intruders stormed in and tied up all four.
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.
In 1979, Strickland was convicted by an all-White jury and sentenced to life in prison. Throughout the years, Douglas, the sole survivor, tried to withdraw her testimony implicating Strickland, saying she had been pressured by police, but was threatened with perjury, her relatives have said. A recent review of the case found that dozens of fingerprints, including those on the shotgun used in the murders, did not belong to Strickland.
“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,” Welsh wrote. “The State of Missouri shall immediately discharge Kevin Bernard Strickland from its custody.”
Days before the judge exonerated Strickland, 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. But even with the groundswell of support, Strickland said, decades of imprisonment left him “pessimistic” about whether he would be released.
“I mean, I’m hoping for the best,” he said before his release, “but I’m anticipating the worst.”
If he was freed, he said, he hoped to see the ocean, which he has never visited in person, and his mother’s grave.
The day after Thanksgiving, Strickland could not be immediately reached for comment, but Bushnell, his attorney, said he spent the holiday with his loved ones.
As for the GoFundMe campaign, Bushnell said Strickland will receive all the donations, minus any credit card processing fees. She said given the amount of money, the Midwest Innocence Project will help him get set up with a financial planner to help him manage it, but stressed that “it is his money.”
Bushnell said Strickland was released from prison without even a toothbrush, so he will need to buy basic necessities such as clothing and toiletries. In addition, she said Strickland, who uses a wheelchair and has faced health issues, will need a way to pay for medical care and to be able to continue to do so the rest of this life.
“He’s 62 years old with physical problems. He’s not going to be able to work in the way that many other folks coming home would. This has got to be something to sustain him,” she said.
In addition to the donations, people have left messages of support for Strickland on his GoFundMe page, telling him, “Your story is heartbreaking,” “I’m so sorry for all that you had to go through,” and “I can’t make it right but wanted to do something to help.”
“Nothing will bring back the 43 years that were stolen from you,” one donor, who gave $25 to his cause, wrote on the GoFundMe page. “However, I want you to know that after seeing so much hate in the world day after day, it has brought me to tears to see the love that is being shown to you.”