KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A man who’s been in prison for more than 40 years for a triple murder he insists he didn’t commit is finally getting a hearing to try to clear his name.
A jury convicted Kevin Strickland for that 1978 triple murder largely because of eyewitness testimony. It’s what that same witness later said that prosecutors are now using to try to free him.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker called Strickland’s exoneration hearing uncharted territory. It’s the first time in Missouri that a prosecutor will test a new law that lets prosecutors provide evidence in court if they believe someone was wrongfully convicted.
Peters Baker said it’s key that the only witness in this case, Cynthia Douglas (then Cynthia Richardson), recanted her testimony after trial. The prosecutor also cited a lack of physical evidence tying Strickland to the murders.
Strickland took the stand first.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with these murders,” he said.
The 62-year-old said he was no where near the crime scene that night. Strickland has always maintained that he was home watching television and had nothing to do with the killings, which happened when he was 18 years old.
Andrew Clarke, an assistant prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office, said evidence existed to show Strickland was guilty. Clarke said one of Strickland’s fingerprints was found on a car used the night of the killings. It was owned by Vincent Bell, who later pleaded guilty to the murders.
Strickland testified that he often drove the car for Bell, who did not have a driver’s license and he was surprised more of the his fingerprints weren’t found on the car.
Strickland also acknowledged he gave Bell some shotgun shells two to three weeks before the killings after Bell said he wanted to test a shotgun he was given. But Strickland maintained he did not know they would be used in a triple murder.
But Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt believes Strickland should stay behind bars and has been trying to block this hearing. Lawyers representing the attorney general’s office spent Monday trying to poke holes in Peters Baker’s claim.
Clarke questioned Strickland’s truthfulness and the authenticity of an email Douglas sent to the Midwest Innocence Project in 2009, claiming she identified the wrong person.
To support claims in the email, Peters Baker called one of Douglas’s coworkers who testified that Douglas told her she identified the wrong person but never used Strickland’s name.
Douglas’ mother also testified about a more detailed conversation she had with her daughter.
“‘Mother I picked the wrong guy,’ she said. ‘I picked the wrong guy, mother,” Douglas’s mother, Senoria Douglas, said. “She said one of the officers told her, that’s the guy right there, and that’s the one you need to pick. That’s him right there, and so that’s the one she picked. So she found out later she picked the wrong guy, and she was upset about it and she was depressed about it.”
Douglas’s mother said her daughter did tell her Strickland was the man she misidentified.
When it comes to whether or not Douglas recanted her testimony, the judge will have to take the new testimony of friends and family. Douglas died in 2015.