The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Missouri’s governor uses his pardon power — but not for two innocent Black men in prison

Mark and Patricia McCloskey, standing in front of their house, confront protesters marching in the Central West End of St. Louis in June 2020. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

There is no question about the guilt of Missouri couple Mark and Patricia McCloskey. Videos and photographs show the two brandishing firearms at peaceful protesters outside their St. Louis mansion last year. Both pleaded guilty in June to misdemeanor offenses — Mark for fourth-degree assault and Patricia for harassment — and they were ordered to pay fines.

There is almost no question, either, about the guilt of Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson: Both of them almost certainly are innocent. Yet Mr. Strickland has been in a Missouri prison for 43 years, for a triple murder that prosecutors now say he did not commit. Mr. Johnson has been imprisoned for 26 years for murder despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. In both cases, the real killers pleaded guilty and have already served their time for the murders.

So it is mind-boggling — and truly appalling — that the individuals Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) has found time to pardon are the unrepentant gun-toting McCloskeys and not two Black men who have suffered the grave injustice of being locked up, with no end in sight, for crimes they did not commit. The pardons for the McCloskeys, who are White, were announced Tuesday by the governor’s office without comment; no wonder, considering nothing could possibly be said to justify the action.

The U.S. Supreme Court has called clemency the “fail safe” of the judicial system, empowering executives to correct unjust outcomes — such as a wrongful conviction or a too-severe sentence — on a case-by-case basis. Not a “priority,” Mr. Parson said in June when asked about a pardon for Mr. Strickland, who is now 62 and uses a wheelchair. He said Mr. Strickland had been found guilty by a jury of his peers. Never mind that prosecutors removed the only four Black people on the list of potential jurors, ensuring he faced an all-White panel overseen by a White judge with White lawyers. Never mind that evidence amassed by the Midwest Innocence Project persuaded the local prosecutor to take another look at the case. The local prosecutor’s findings, corroborated by independent review by federal prosecutors, determined that Mr. Strickland is innocent of the charges for which he was convicted.

In most states, when defense lawyers and prosecutors agree that someone is innocent — as is the case with both Mr. Strickland and Mr. Johnson — they are freed, but Missouri law limits local prosecutors’ ability to correct wrongful convictions and gives an outsize role to the state attorney general. That office has opposed rectification in nearly all wrongful-conviction cases without regard to merit. State Attorney General Eric Schmitt (R) has continued the tradition of not being able to admit mistakes and is fighting ongoing legal efforts to free Mr. Strickland and Mr. Johnson.

A change in state law giving local prosecutors more authority to pursue innocence claims goes into effect this month. That could bolster efforts to free Mr. Strickland and Mr. Johnson. But every single day they spend in prison is an affront and an injustice.

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