The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This innocent man spent 43 years in prison. He will get zip from the state that fought his release.

Kevin Strickland was wrongfully convicted in 1979 of a triple murder in Kansas City. (James Wooldridge/AP)
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“Joy, sorrow, fear.” Those are the emotions Kevin Strickland said he sorted through after his release from a Missouri prison after serving 43 years for a crime he did not commit. “I’m not necessarily angry,” Mr. Strickland told reporters. But he should be angry — very angry — at a justice system that robbed him of more than two-thirds of his life and at the Missouri officials who kept him imprisoned long after it became clear he was innocent.

Mr. Strickland left the Western Missouri Correctional Center two days before Thanksgiving after a judge exonerated him of a triple murder, his 1979 conviction for which sent him to prison without a chance of parole for 50 years when he was 18 years old. The ruling, from Judge James Welsh, came after a three-day evidentiary hearing that a Jackson County prosecutor requested because the evidence used to convict Mr. Strickland had been recanted or disproved since his trial.

The motion from prosecutor Jean Peters Baker was the first of its kind under a new Missouri law. Before its enactment, state law prohibited local prosecutors from correcting wrongful convictions, even when abundant evidence suggested grave injustice — as in Mr. Strickland’s case. An all-White jury convicted Mr. Strickland, who is Black. No physical evidence tied him to the crime scene. Another man convicted in the killings said Mr. Strickland had not been involved, and the only eyewitness — a traumatized teen who watched her friends’ murder — said police pressured her to pick Mr. Strickland from a lineup. She later recanted her testimony.

Voices Across America: Our surreal fight to get Kevin Strickland released

Despite that evidence — and even as local prosecutors sought to free Mr. Strickland — Attorney General Eric Schmitt (R) fought to uphold the conviction, delaying Mr. Strickland’s hearing and attempting to block his release, acts in keeping with his office’s shameful tradition of opposing redress for nearly every wrongful conviction. Mr. Schmitt, who is running for the U.S. Senate, isn’t the only one who acted disgracefully. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson (R) rebuffed appeals to pardon Mr. Strickland. Not a “priority,” Mr. Parson said of Mr. Strickland, even as he took pains to pardon Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the unrepentant Missouri couple who pointed firearms at peaceful protesters.

Mr. Strickland endured one of the longest wrongful imprisonments acknowledged in U.S. history and the longest in Missouri by more than a decade, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. But because Missouri compensates inmates exonerated with DNA evidence only, Mr. Strickland won’t get a penny from the state. The Midwest Innocence Project, which helped Mr. Strickland win exoneration, created a GoFundMe account to which 20,000 people have donated more than a $1 million. Yet it should not take the charity of strangers to compensate people whom Missouri has done egregious wrong.

Mr. Strickland’s release should motivate state lawmakers to reform this heartless system. It should also draw attention to Lamar Johnson, another Black man Missouri has imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. It was Mr. Johnson’s case that prompted lawmakers to pass the statute allowing local prosecutors to overturn or revisit wrongful convictions. But so far — even though dozens of errors have been found in his prosecution and two other men have confessed to committing the murder — Mr. Johnson remains behind bars. Twenty-six years and counting.

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