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Opinion Our surreal fight to get Kevin Strickland released

Kevin Strickland, 62, on Nov. 23 in Cameron, Mo. (Rich Sugg/The Kansas City Star via AP)

A prosecutor for nearly 25 years, Jean Peters Baker (D) is the elected prosecutor in Jackson County, Mo.

As a prosecutor, I have had my share of tough cases. I know convictions can be hard to achieve. But until recently, I had little experience with how difficult and punishing it would be to correct a wrongful conviction. That changed when I took on the fight to free an innocent man, Kevin Strickland.

As has been widely reported, the effort was successful. But that was far from a foregone conclusion when, at the request of his lawyers, my office began to dig into Strickland’s conviction. That was in late 2020, more than 40 years into his life sentence for a 1978 triple murder.

His innocence soon became clear to us. The only evidence directly used to convict him had been discredited when the lone witness to the murders, Cynthia Douglas — who was wounded in the attack — credibly recanted her testimony that Strickland was one of the killers. Friends and family told us that Douglas, who died in 2015, had tried for years to correct the wrong, saying she had felt pressured by police to incriminate Strickland. Both of the other men convicted and sentenced in the murders had publicly said Strickland was not involved.

Our office had clearly made a grave, almost unthinkable error four decades ago. It was now our duty to correct it.

But how? As I began the fight early in 2021, I had no legal path toward gaining Strickland’s release. Parole was not an option: The sentence he received in 1979 was a “hard 50” — that is, no possibility of parole until he had served 50 years — and he had served 42. A pardon seemed possible, since Gov. Mike Parson (R) had already issued 168 — including pardons for the St. Louis couple who famously brandished guns at demonstrators passing their home on the way to a social-justice protest. But Parson said he wasn’t convinced enough of Strickland’s innocence.

Without a legal option, I collaborated with a bipartisan group of state legislators and others to create a statutory fix — establishing a mechanism not then existing in Missouri law that would let prosecutors pursue freedom for those they believe to have been wrongfully convicted. But as the legislative session dragged on into May, our bill was described as dead. Four days before the session was set to end, I made a public statement on the Strickland case, detailing our office’s findings about his innocence.

I did so because I believed my responsibility was, at minimum, to publicly acknowledge this profound error. But I also quietly hoped legislators might still act.

And in fact — somewhat to my surprise — they did. The provision we sought was inserted into a larger criminal justice package, and the bill passed two days later. Within seconds of its effective date on Aug. 28, I filed a motion to vacate Strickland’s conviction.

It would take me until nearly Thanksgiving to prevail. This was due in great part to the determination of Missouri’s highest legal officer, Attorney General Eric Schmitt (R), to keep Strickland in prison.

Each Friday evening, his office hit mine with a new electronic bomb of discovery demands and creative motions. At 5:08 p.m. on the Friday before our evidentiary hearing on Monday, Nov. 8, they disclosed more than 250 hours of prison calls. Of course, if we complained about the late disclosure, the remedy would be a continuance, with Strickland paying the price for that delay. So we pressed on.

Schmitt’s actions in this period were sometimes bizarre. He even attempted to get the case renamed, from State of Missouri v. Kevin Strickland to Jean Peters Baker v. State of Missouri — apparently an effort to shift the focus away from an innocent man and onto me personally.

Taxpayer-funded state actors, sworn to seek the truth, had disregarded challenges to Strickland’s conviction for 41 years. Now they were ignoring evidence and seeking delays — apparently with no motivation except defending an existing verdict. In the end, these tactics failed, largely because of this truth: Kevin Strickland is actually innocent.

Justice is not perfect, as this case underscores. As Strickland was released from prison on Nov. 23, the world learned that Missouri law offers no compensation to wrongly convicted individuals unless DNA evidence led to their exoneration. Where Missouri failed, the generosity of strangers prevailed. Tens of thousands of individuals have donated more than $1.6 million to ensure that Strickland will never have to worry about who pays for tomorrow.

I like to hold on to this belief: In a courtroom, the law and the evidence eventually prevail. I also understand that, nevertheless, true justice can sometimes be elusive. But a prosecutor’s duty isn’t to calculate justice based on wins or losses. It is to convict the guilty, as well as to protect the innocent.