Missouri Enacts New Mechanism for Prosecutors to Address Wrongful Convictions

09.20.21

Jackson County prosecutors filed a motion under the new law to set aside Kevin Strickland’s conviction based on actual innocence.

On August 28, a new law took effect in Missouri that allows a prosecutor to file a motion to vacate or set aside a judgment at any time if they have information that the convicted person may be innocent or may have been erroneously convicted.

Missouri did not previously have a legal mechanism for local prosecutors to seek relief in wrongful conviction cases. But now, state law requires the court to hold a hearing on the prosecutor’s motion to set aside the conviction.

The court must grant the prosecutor’s motion if it agrees with the prosecutor that there is clear and convincing evidence of actual innocence or a constitutional error at the original trial or plea that undermines confidence in the judgment.

Conviction Integrity Units in prosecutor’s offices are another legal mechanism for investigating and overturning wrongful convictions that have become increasingly essential to exposing wrongful convictions. Of the 129 exonerations in 2020, CIUs helped secure 61 exonerations.

Nationwide, more than 2,800 people have been exonerated since 1989, and 30% of wrongful convictions can be traced to mistaken eyewitness identifications.

Prosecutors Use New Law in Kevin Strickland Case

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker praised lawmakers and the governor for passing the new law. “Making it possible for an officer of the court to stand before a judge and argue to correct a grave wrong is a system of justice we can all stand behind,” she said in a statement.

On the same day the new law took effect, Ms. Baker filed a first-of-its-kind motion asking a court to release Kevin Strickland after 43 years in prison because he “is actually innocent” and “should not remain in custody a day longer.”

The motion asserts that evidence of Kevin Strickland’s innocence is “clear and convincing” for several reasons:

  • The conviction was based “on a single mistaken eyewitness identification,” the State wrote, that has been repeatedly recanted.
  • No physical evidence linked Kevin Strickland to the crime—and now, fingerprint testing that the State refused to conduct at trial has excluded him from the murder weapon.
  • And the State now acknowledges that the prosecution intentionally excluded Black jurors from a second trial after the first ended in a mistrial.
The evidence of Strickland’s innocence is clear and convincing.

Jackson County Prosecutor

On April 25, 1978, four men entered Larry Ingram’s home in Kansas City and fatally shot him and his friends Sherrie Black and John Walker, the motion details. Cynthia Douglas survived being shot in the arm and leg and she immediately told police she knew two of the perpetrators—Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins. She did not know the man holding the murder weapon, describing him only as “a black dude with a shotgun.”

Ms. Douglas had known Kevin Strickland for years, the motion explains, but only after a friend suggested he could be the man with the gun because he had a similar hairstyle did she tell police that man was Kevin Strickland. She claimed she hadn’t identified him before because she’d been drinking and using marijuana that night. The police put Mr. Strickland in a lineup and asked Ms. Douglas to pick him out—not to pick out the shooter—which she did easily because she knew him.

Ms. Douglas’s tainted identification was the only direct evidence against Mr. Strickland at trial, the State wrote, and within a year of his conviction, she recanted it. For decades before she died in 2015, she told her family and friends that she was mistaken and sought advice about how to remedy her mistake.

In 2020, Mr. Strickland learned that the Kansas City Police Department still had the latent fingerprint cards collected from the shotgun used in the crime, and one print was sufficient for comparison—a “remarkable” discovery, the State wrote, given that the State elicited testimony at trial that all of the prints taken from the shotgun were of no value and could not be compared. KCPD testing excluded Mr. Strickland as the source of the fingerprint on the murder weapon.

A Wrongful Conviction by an All-White Jury

The State’s motion acknowledges that the prosecution deliberately excluded Black people from the jury in order to obtain a conviction against Kevin Strickland after the jury in the first trial was unable to reach a verdict. The prosecutor blamed the mistrial on the inclusion of at least one Black juror—which he described as “careless” and a “mistake” that he would not repeat.

At the second trial in April 1979, the prosecution took note of each potential juror’s race and used its first four peremptory strikes to remove the only four Black jurors who remained after challenges for cause.

The defense objected, but rather than provide a race-neutral reason to justify its strikes, the State objected to being questioned about its reasons and argued it had a right to exercise its strikes “in any way it chooses” without explaining them. The court sided with the State because the Supreme Court had not yet decided Batson v. Kentucky, which requires the State to provide race-neutral reasons when the defense raises an inference of racial discrimination.

As a result, the State wrote, “the case, which involved four Black victims and four Black perpetrators, was decided by an all-white jury in a trial, before a white judge, with white attorneys representing all parties.”

Kevin Strickland, just 18 years old and with no prior criminal record, was convicted of one count of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He was the first person in Jackson County to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for 50 years under a new sentencing law that was repealed after only six years.

“Most of us have heard the famous quotation that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,'” Ms. Baker said in a statement. “Kevin Strickland stands as our own example of what happens when a system set to be just, just gets it terribly wrong. “