By MARGARET STAFFORD Associated Press
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Kansas City man who has been jailed for more than 40 years for a triple murder adamantly and repeatedly denied having anything to do with the crime during testimony Monday in an evidentiary hearing that could lead to his freedom.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with these murders. By no means was I anywhere close to that crime scene,” said Kevin Strickland, adding he has been working toward his freedom since he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1979.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and other legal and political leaders say Strickland was wrongfully convicted, and Peters Baker has been working to free him. She said evidence used to convict him had been recanted or disproven since his trial.
“This is a triple murder in which three young people were executed,” Peters Baker said Monday. “The tragedy was made much, much worse by Kevin Strickland’s conviction.”
Under questioning from Peters Baker and his personal attorney, Robert Hoffman, Strickland said he had “absolutely nothing to do with these murders.”
The evidentiary hearing in Strickland’s case comes after months of delays caused by legal procedures and canceled hearings prompted mostly by motions filed by the state attorney general’s office. Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, has said he believes Strickland is guilty of the murders.
Andrew Clarke, an assistant prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office, said in his opening statement that evidence existed to show Strickland was guilty. Assistant prosecutor Christine Krug was cross-examining Strickland Monday afternoon.
Strickland, 62, was convicted in the April 25, 1978, fatal shootings of Larry Ingram, 21; John Walker, 20; and Sherrie Black, 22, in Kansas City.
Strickland, a Black man, saw his first trial end in a hung jury when the only Black juror, a woman, held out for acquittal. After his second trial in 1979, he was convicted by an all-white jury of one count of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder.
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.
Two other men convicted in the killings later insisted that Strickland wasn’t at the crime scene, The Kansas City Star reported. And before she died, Cynthia Douglas, the only eyewitness to the killings, recanted her testimony that Strickland was the shooter.
Attorneys for Strickland and the Attorney General’s office indicated during opening statements that the statements from Douglas identifying Strickland as the shooter would be central to determining Strickland’s fate.
On Monday, Strickland denied suggestions that he offered Douglas $300 to “keep her mouth shut,” and said he had never visited the house where the murders occurred before they happened.
Strickland said he went to the scene at the request of a friend who was the sister of Vincent Bell, who was later convicted in the killings along with Strickland. He said he cooperated with officers at the scene and later at the police station because he “knew the system worked and I would not be convicted of something I didn’t do.”
Strickland, who has spinal stenosis, was brought in a wheelchair Monday morning into a room near where the hearing was about to begin. Asked how he felt, he said, “scared.”
In June, the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear Strickland’s petition. Republican Gov. Mike Parson also refused to pardon Strickland, saying he wasn’t convinced that Strickland was innocent.
Hearings were scheduled in August in DeKalb County, where Strickland is imprisoned. Those hearings were canceled after Peters Baker used a new state law to seek an evidentiary hearing in Jackson County, where Strickland was convicted. The law allows local prosecutors to challenge convictions if they believe the defendant did not commit the crime.
A hearing scheduled for Sept. 2 was delayed after Schmitt’s office sought more time for the court to hear several motions his office filed in the case.
Schmitt sought to have all 16th Circuit judges in Jackson County recused from presiding over the evidentiary hearing because the presiding judge in that circuit had said he agreed that Strickland was wrongfully convicted.
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled Sept. 30 that the Jackson County judges should be recused from the hearing to avoid any suggestions of impropriety or bias, delaying another hearing. Retired Senior Judge James Welsh was then appointed to preside over the case.