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Kevin Strickland

Other Missouri Exonerations
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On April 25, 1978, Cynthia Douglas was visiting 21-year-old Larry Ingram at his house in Kansas City, Missouri. Douglas’s boyfriend, 20-year-old John Walker, was there, along with 22-year-old Sherrie Black. Around 8:30 p.m., Ingram let two men into the house.

Very quickly, the two men pulled out guns. Ingram asked one of the men what he wanted, and the man said, “You know what I want.” One of the men then opened the door and let two other men in. Ingram and the guests were tied up, and the men began searching the house, taking Ingram into the living room. Douglas then heard a shot, and the men returned to the bedroom and shot Walker, Black, and Douglas. Only Douglas survived. She was shot in the arm and leg and pretended to be dead.

Douglas untied herself and went to a nearby house. The neighbors called the police. Douglas also called Randy Harris, her sister’s boyfriend, who rushed over. Before she left in an ambulance for the hospital, Douglas told police that Vincent Bell and Kilm Adkins were two of the four men involved in the shooting. She knew both men personally. She would later testify that she didn’t identify anybody else at the time.

Several hours later, at 3:20 a.m. on April 26, Douglas gave a more formal statement to police. She identified Bell and Adkins from police mug shots and gave further descriptions of the two other assailants. One carried a shotgun, and the other wore a paper bag over his head. In this statement, she also said she did not know either man.

Later that morning, just before 10 a.m., Kansas City police arrested 18-year-old Kevin Bernard Strickland in connection with the shootings. He had a previous arrest as a juvenile for a shooting, but no convictions. He was a neighbor of Bell’s and friends with him and Adkins. Officers would later testify that they heard some version of Strickland’s nickname – “Nordy,” a play on Bernard – from Douglas during the initial stages of the investigation, and then put out a dispatch order for Strickland to be brought in for questioning.

The officers who interviewed Strickland at the police station would later note that he was “uncooperative and combative.” In the written report, the officers said that Strickland told them he already knew about the triple homicide. He also said that he had been with Bell and Adkins at about 5 p.m., a few hours before the murders.

According to the police report, Strickland said a friend of his called him after the shooting and said that the “girl that was shot in the leg” knew who had shot her and was going to tell the police. He declined to name this friend. The police report also said that Strickland said he received a call at around 9 a.m. on April 26 from Bell and Adkins, asking whether the police were looking for him. Strickland said he told them they were; the police were at his mother’s house.

Strickland told the police that he might have handled Bell’s shotgun a few days before the shooting and that he had given Bell some shells.

Later, Strickland told the officers he wasn’t talking any more. “Book me or turn me loose, but if you do, next time you come after me, draw first or I’ll kill you,” he said. He denied any involvement in the shooting, but said that if he had been involved, he would have been shooting with everyone else, because “I love to shoot my gun. I’m a good shot, and I love to kill people.”

Cynthia Douglas had returned to the police station for a second interview at around 3:30 p.m. on April 26. After leaving the hospital, she had discussed the case with Harris and described to him the man with a shotgun. Harris told her that the features sounded like Strickland, in part based on Douglas’s description and in part because of Strickland’s relationship with Bell and Adkins. In this second interview, Douglas now said Strickland, whom she had known for several years, was the man with the shotgun and had also cautioned her not to look at him.

The police report about this interview explained the discrepancy between Douglas’s two interviews this way: “It should be noted at this time that CINDY stated that due to her extreme emotional condition, having been shot, and having smoked some marijuana and consumed some cognac, she was unable to recall this particular suspect’s name during her previous interviews with detectives earlier this date. She stated that throughout the morning and afternoon hours on this date, she was able to go over the events in her mind and clarify certain things.”

In addition, Douglas said that Strickland had also reached out to her family earlier that day and asked her to keep quiet about what she saw in exchange for $300.

After the interview, Douglas identified Strickland from a police lineup, where he was one of four men. Rather than asking Douglas which man was the one with the shotgun, the police asked her which one was Keven Strickland. Strickland was charged with one count of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder. Adkins and Bell were later arrested in Kansas and returned to Missouri to face murder charges.

Strickland went to trial first, in October 1978 in Jackson County Circuit Court. The jury deliberated for several days but hung 11-1, with the sole Black member voting for acquittal. A mistrial was declared. The prosecutor told Strickland’s attorney that he had been “careless” in seating that juror and that this “mistake” wouldn’t happen again.

It didn’t. Strickland’s second trial, this time before an all-white jury, took place in April 1979. Without providing explanation, as the law allowed at the time, the prosecutor used his four peremptory strikes to remove the four remaining Black jurors who had not been previously dismissed for cause.

At trial, prosecutors presented a shotgun found not far from the crime scene. A firearms expert testified it was the gun used in the murders. A forensic analyst said that the latent fingerprints taken from the weapon were of poor quality and not usable. Strickland’s fingerprints were not found at the crime scene, but the forensic analyst testified that Strickland’s fingerprint was found on the rearview mirror of Bell’s car.

Several police officers testified that Douglas had identified Strickland on the night of the shooting, well before she identified him in her second interview.

One officer testified that Douglas had mentioned a man named “Nordy” as she was being treated inside the neighbor’s house. This contradicted his testimony at the first trial, where he said she mentioned Strickland’s nickname from the back of an ambulance. Asked on cross-examination about the discrepancy, the officer said he could not recall when and where Douglas first mentioned Strickland. This officer also said that Douglas also named a man known in court documents as T.A. as being involved in the shooting. But his name was missing from the initial reports, and Douglas would testify that she didn’t know T.A., so she would have been unable to name him.

A second officer testified that Douglas had told him at the crime scene about Bell, Adkins, and Strickland, and that he asked the police dispatcher to put out a “pick-up” order for these men at 10 p.m. on April 25. But Strickland’s name wasn’t in that order, although it was in an order issued about five hours later. The officer also claimed that he had written down the information about “Naudy” in his personal investigative notebook, but the document was never produced at trial.

Douglas identified Strickland as the man with a shotgun, but she also said that she had made no statement to police prior to the second interview on April 26 that identified him as a participant. She said that it was her discussion with Harris that convinced her of Strickland’s involvement.

Strickland testified that he was not involved in the killings. He said that he had learned about the events from talking to police officers near the crime scene. But one of his witnesses testified he was standing next to Strickland at that time and didn’t hear this exchange. In addition, Strickland said that the person who called him about Douglas’s condition and her ability to identify the shooters was Randy Harris’s brother, Marcus Harris. He was also the person with whom Strickland discussed paying Douglas for her silence on the morning after the killing.

Strickland also offered several alibi witnesses. His older brother testified that he and Strickland were at their father’s house in the hour before the murder, and that Bell and Adkins weren’t there. Strickland’s girlfriend also testified that she spoke with him three times by telephone that evening.

Adkins’s mother also testified on Strickland’s behalf. She said that her son, Bell, T.A., and another man were at her house at about 7-7:30 p.m. on April 25. She knew Strickland, and he wasn’t there. This was consistent with a statement she had given police two days after the murders.

After an hour of deliberation, the jury convicted Strickland of one count of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder on April 26, 1979. He was sentenced to life without parole eligibility for at least 50 years and two concurrent 10-year sentences.

Adkins entered an Alford plea to three counts of second-degree murder on April 30, 1979, and received a 20-year prison sentence. Under an Alford plea, defendants don’t admit guilt but acknowledge the state has sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction.

Bell pled guilty to three counts of second-degree murder on August 13, 1979, also receiving a sentence of 20 years in prison.

During his allocution, Bell testified about the shooting and the events that led up to it. He said that Adkins and the man known as T.A. were mad at Ingram because they believed he had cheated them at dice, and they planned to get their money back. Joining the three men was a 16-year-old known as P.H. Bell said Strickland wasn’t there. He said: “I want to let them really know what happened out there in society in 1978, April 25, and let these people know today that one of the suspects today that Douglas said it was, it wasn’t him. I know for a fact ‘cause I was there, and she mistake that man same as the State mistake that man.”

Bell said that Strickland’s attempt to bribe Cynthia Douglas was a misguided attempt to help a friend, not an admission of guilt. Strickland, he said, was “trying to be big, you know, not knowing what was going on. He was telling Marcus Harris to tell Cindy [to] be quiet and he’d give her a couple dollars … So Marcus thought he was involved.”

Strickland appealed, arguing there had been insufficient evidence to support the conviction. The Missouri Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on December 15, 1980. Strickland then began a series of motions for post-conviction relief that spanned 1983-2017. Each was dismissed. The Western District for the Missouri Court of Appeals wrote on March 14, 2017, “The substance of Strickland’s 2015 PCR motion is nothing more than an attempt to piecemeal allegedly ‘new’ arguments for ‘old’ claims that have previously been asserted by Strickland, in his PCR motion odyssey that has now spanned over two decades.”

Separately, Strickland filed a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri on July 16, 2013. (An earlier petition, filed in 1997, was dismissed.) He claimed his trial attorney had been ineffective because of his failure to adequately challenge Douglas’s identification. He also presented two new pieces of evidence. The first was an affidavit from Adkins stating that Strickland wasn’t involved in the murder. The second was an email that Douglas had written to the Midwest Innocence Project on February 4, 2009. She said: “I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused, this incident happened back in 1978. I was the only eyewitness and things were not clear back then, but now I know more and would like to help this person if I can.”

The email didn’t identify Strickland, and an attorney with the organization wrote back a few days later, asking Douglas to have the defendant contact the group; its policies didn’t allow it to advocate for a defendant unless the defendant made the request. Douglas never wrote back.

Without holding any hearings, the court dismissed Strickland’s petition on July 30, 2013. It said the matters had already been addressed in previous claims.

Douglas died in 2015. In September 2020, the Kansas City Star published an investigation into Strickland’s claims of innocence. In November 2020, the Midwest Innocence Project, which was now representing Strickland, asked the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office to reexamine the case. The office’s Conviction Integrity Unit began a lengthy review. In its report, released May 8, 2021, Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said: “Reliable, corroborated evidence now proves that Mr. Strickland is factually innocent of the charges for which he was convicted in 1979. In the interests of justice, Mr. Strickland’s conviction should be set aside, he should be promptly released, and he deserves public exoneration.”

The CIU report said that Douglas had likely mistaken Strickland for P.H., who was a much stronger suspect. Strickland had told the police in his interview that P.H. was with Bell and Adkins the afternoon of the murders. Bell had said the same during his allocution. In addition, P.H. was arrested for armed robbery a month after Strickland’s arrest. Finally, he and Strickland looked very similar. They were both short, with light skin and similar hairstyles.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a doppelganger, but I would say it’s strikingly similar,” Baker told the Kansas City Star. “I do remember having some moments like that where I thought, ‘Wow.’ We just kept becoming more and more sure.”

The report said that after Bell entered his plea and allocution naming his accomplices in 1979, Douglas became convinced she had made a mistake and tried to tell prosecutors. According to Douglas’s husband, she was rebuffed. Three other witnesses also signed affidavits saying that Douglas had recanted to them years before she sent the email to the Midwest Innocence Project in 2009.

Douglas had testified that Strickland was the man with the shotgun, and the Kansas City Police Department had retained the lift taken from the weapon in 1978. Because of improvements in technology, the report said, it was now possible to compare the print that the analyst testified was unusable. Strickland was eliminated as the source of that fingerprint.

The CIU report noted that Strickland and Bell were neighbors, and it said that Strickland likely offered Douglas money to keep quiet in an effort to impress Bell. It also closely reviewed Strickland’s interview with the police and found his statements “inflammatory” but not “inculpatory.”

“They are offensive, but making the statements would not make Strickland guilty of being there that night,” the report said. “Strickland has paid a steep price for associating with Bell, Adkins and T.A., for mouthing off to police, and for trying to be cool in helping his older neighbor Bell.”

Following the release of the CIU report, Strickland’s attorneys filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus petition with the Missouri Supreme Court for his immediate release.

While the petition tracked many of the findings in the CIU report, it also asserted that the fingerprint analyst had testified falsely that the print lifted from the shotgun could not be used for identification purposes. The state had relied on a lower-level employee to make that assessment for the analyst, but the print did have “sufficient ridge detail,” which would have allowed its comparison to Strickland at the time of his trial. It wasn’t an advancement in technology that allowed the more recent comparison that excluded Strickland; the evidence was there all along. Strickland’s attorney, the petition said, was ineffective for failing to independently examine the fingerprint evidence, and for failing to object when the police officer referred to jottings in his notebook without producing the book itself.

The court declined to hear the case.

By now, Strickland’s case had garnered national attention, with calls by politicians of both parties for Governor Mike Parson to issue a pardon. Parson declined, saying he was not convinced of Strickland’s innocence. “I am not convinced that I’m willing to put other people at risk if you’re not right,” he said.

When the CIU began its review of Strickland’s conviction, prosecutors in Missouri couldn’t petition the court for new trials for defendants after their convictions had become final. On March 2, 2021, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed that rule in another closely watched case, involving a defendant from St. Louis named Lamar Johnson. The justices wrote: “This case is not about whether Johnson is innocent or whether there exists a remedy for someone who is innocent and did not receive a constitutionally fair trial. This case presents only the issue of whether there is any authority to appeal the dismissal of a motion for a new trial filed decades after a criminal conviction became final. No such authority exists.”

Following the court’s decision, the Missouri General Assembly approved legislation allowing prosecutors to petition a Circuit Court judge to set aside a wrongful conviction. On July 14, 2021, Parson signed the bill into law, and it took effect on August 28, 2021.

Baker filed a motion that day to set aside the verdict in Strickland’s case.

Two days later, Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a notice that his office planned to oppose Baker’s motion. Schmitt said much of the evidence mentioned in Baker’s motion was hearsay and neither reliable nor admissible. In later filings, Schmitt said that even Douglas’s email to the Midwest Innocence Project wasn’t evidence of Strickland’s innocence. “The email does not retract any part of Douglas’s trial testimony or show that she was lying or mistaken when she testified," the state said. "Instead, the email is an ambiguous request for information about how to help an unnamed inmate.”

Two days of evidentiary hearings were held in Jackson County Circuit Court in November 2021 before Judge James Welsh, a retired state appellate judge.

On November 23, 2021, Judge Welsh vacated Strickland’s conviction. His ruling noted that the new Missouri law allowed him to consider both “information” and “evidence,” which could encompass the affidavits about Douglas’s recantations, which he called “numerous and consistent.”

Judge Welsh also said Bell’s statement at his allocution, where he said Douglas confused Strickland with P.H., was significant. Ordinarily, the statements of a co-conspirator would not matter, he wrote, but “Rather than naming people who had died, were unable to be located, or were even nonexistent, Bell named known associates.”

Judge Welsh said that no physical evidence connected Strickland to the killings; he was convicted solely on Douglas’s testimony, which she had recanted. “Under these unique circumstances, the Court’s confidence in Strickland’s conviction is so undermined that it cannot stand,” he wrote.

Strickland, now 62 and largely confined to a wheelchair, was released from prison that day, and Baker dismissed the charges.

Missouri only pays state compensation to wrongfully convicted defendants who prove their innocence through DNA. Strickland didn’t qualify. “Mr. Strickland was falsely held for 43 years and he doesn’t have a single cent to support him from the State of Missouri,” Baker said in a statement. “He should be paid for this wrong that happened to him. No one could argue that would not be the right thing, the just thing, to do.”

An online fundraiser for Strickland set up by Tricia Rojo Bushnell, the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project and one of Strickland's attorneys, quickly raised more than $1.6 million in six days.

Strickland told the New York Times that while the outpouring of generosity was appreciated, it didn’t get at the essence of who was responsible for what happened to him. “The courts failed me and that’s who should be trying to make my life a little more comfortable,” he said.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 12/6/2021
Last Updated: 12/6/2021
State:Missouri
County:Jackson
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1978
Convicted:1979
Exonerated:2021
Sentence:Life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:18
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No