He had to wait more than 42 years — more than almost anyone in U.S. history — but Kevin Strickland received a small measure of justice Tuesday. Judge James Welsh, a retired appellate judge, granted a motion to exonerate Strickland and ordered him released from prison. Strickland, 62, was convicted of a 1978 triple murder he had nothing to do with. Most of his adult life was stolen by the state.
Missourians should celebrate the outcome of Strickland’s decades long pursuit of justice. We congratulate Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who sought Strickland’s release after the General Assembly enacted a statute allowing her to do so. And the community must wrap its arms around Kevin Strickland and help him make the most of his new freedom.
But Strickland wasn’t saved by the “system.” The system put him in prison, erroneously, and worked overtime to keep him there. The “system” fought viciously to keep him in custody, long after the rest of the world became convinced of his innocence. For this, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and Attorney General Eric Schmitt deserve the condemnation of every Missourian who thinks justice is real, and not a joke. Parson refused to commute Parson’s sentence, or issue a pardon, after receiving several requests to do so. Schmitt sent lawyers to court to block Strickland’s release, and to exercise every possible delaying tactic to deny the inmate his day in court. Both men stammered and sputtered on Thursday when asked to explain their brutality.
Parson said he “respected” the judge’s decision. He said nothing about respecting Kevin Strickland. The governor revealed no regrets about preventing Strickland from visiting his dying mother or attending her funeral. A spokesperson for Schmitt said the politically ambitious attorney general “defended the rule of law,” which insults common sense: Strickland, who is Black, spent four decades in prison because the rule of law in Missouri was violated, grotesquely. Schmitt was an integral part of that. If the “rule of law” means keeping an innocent person in prison, what kind of law are we talking about?
As of late [Wednesday], neither man had publicly apologized to Strickland for the state’s stunning error and stubborn refusal to own up to it. If either had any decency, or even the will to fake it, they would tell him they’re sorry. But then, they aren’t. This newspaper worked tirelessly to investigate and report on Strickland’s innocence. But let’s also be clear: If The Star contributed in any way to Strickland’s original conviction, through less than thorough reporting or anti-Black bias, we do apologize to him, and to the community. Missouri law doesn’t require compensation for Strickland’s decades in prison, so he’s a free man with friends but few resources. “I have nothing,” he told a reporter. Private donors may help, but it won’t be enough. The governor, and the attorney general, must ask lawmakers to compensate Strickland next year. The Kansas standard — $65,000 for each year in custody — sounds about right. It would cost Missouri about $2.7 million, which it surely has. If they won’t do it, a lawsuit should change their minds. Then the legislature can consider a broader bill requiring more compensation for the wrongly convicted.
This editorial originally appeared in The Kansas City Star.