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, who said 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. 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.”
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.
Attorneys for Strickland and the Attorney General’s office indicated during opening statements that the statements from Cynthia Douglas, the only survivor of the shootings, identifying Strickland as the shooter would be central to determining Strickland’s fate. Strickland's supporters said Douglas recanted her identification before she died.
Andrew Clarke, an assistant prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office, said evidence existed to show Strickland was guilty. He said recorded phone calls between Douglas and her husband while he was incarcerated would show she was not interested in helping Strickland prove his innocence.
Clarke also 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.
Strickland said he drank beer and smoked marijuana before police came to his home to question him about the killings.
During cross-examination on Monday from assistant prosecutor Christine Krug, Strickland acknowledged it was the first time in 43 years that he had ever said he was under the influence at the time.
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 Douglas, the only eyewitness to the killings, recanted her testimony that Strickland was the shooter.
During afternoon testimony, Douglas' daughter, mother, sister and a former co-worker all testified that she had told them she identified the wrong shooter and wanted to help exonerate Strickland,
Senoria Strickland said her daughter told her police pressured her to identify Strickland and she was was upset and depressed that she had chosen “the wrong guy.”
During his testimony, 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 Vincent Bell's sister. 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, watched the testimony from a wheelchair. Before the hearing began, he told reporters he was “scared.”
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 i n 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.
This story has been corrected to show that Strickland watched the testimony from a wheelchair, but did not testify from a wheelchair.