(Missouri Independent) – Kevin Strickland was hopeful Thursday was going to be his first step towards freedom after 40 years in prison.
A new law that went into effect on Aug. 28 gave Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker a legal avenue to free Strickland, who she says is innocent and wrongly incarcerated.
But opposition from the Missouri attorney general’s office derailed those hopes, at least temporarily, as a court blocked a Thursday hearing that was supposed to begin the process that could have ended with Strickland being released.
It’s the latest twist in a long saga, and not only for Strickland.
The law he’s counting on was inspired by the legal travails of Lamar Johnson, who, like Strickland, has spent decades in prison for crimes prosecutors now say he didn’t commit.
Also, like Strickland, efforts to free Johnson faced vehement opposition from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner was rebuffed in her 2019 efforts to free Johnson, as the state Supreme Court agreed with Schmitt two years later that she didn’t have the authority to ask for a new trial for Johnson.
That’s why the Missouri legislature passed a measure in May that gives Missouri elected prosecutors the ability to file motions to dismiss murder convictions that they believe were unjust.
Gardner’s office says it will soon use the law to get Johnson a new trial.
But she can likely expect Schmitt to once again oppose those efforts. Even with the new law in effect, Schmitt is working to block Backer’s ability to move forward in the Strickland case.
On Sept. 1, an appeals court granted Schmitt’s emergency petition to halt the hearing after the lower court ruled that the attorney general didn’t have this power. Schmitt’s office has argued in court filings that Strickland was given a fair trial and he is guilty.
“Frustrating is the right word — that’s what this is,” Baker told reporters on Thursday about the delay. “You would think that 41 years is enough time for someone to investigate the claim.”
Now Strickland’s hearing will be Sept. 13 at 2 p.m. at the Jackson County Courthouse.
“The Western District Court of Appeals is setting a dangerous legal precedent that the Attorney General is using to needlessly delay justice for the wrongfully imprisoned,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, who help craft the law earlier this year.
The law doesn’t give the attorney general the power to file motions pertaining to the evidentiary hearing, Rizzo said, and a conclusion the lower court found as well. The law carves out a “limited role” for Schmitt — who has no jurisdiction in Jackson County. That includes attending a hearing, questioning witnesses, and making arguments.
“This ruling creates new powers out of thin air while ignoring both the letter of the law and the legislative intent behind it,” Rizzo said.
Not a surprise
Baker filed a 25-page motion Monday to dismiss Strickland’s murder conviction, arguing that “clear and convincing” evidence shows he’s innocent.
“Most of us have heard the famous quotation that ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Baker said in a statement after the filing. “Kevin Strickland stands as our own example of what happens when a system set to just get it terribly wrong.”
In her motion to set aside Strickland’s conviction, Baker wrote that the key witness realized that she was mistaken in her identification of Strickland within a year of his conviction. And the two other men convicted of the crime said Strickland wasn’t involved.
Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for the attorney general, doesn’t believe Strickland is innocent.
“Three victims were slain 40 years ago. Kevin Strickland was convicted of those crimes by a jury, and the Supreme Court recently denied his habeas petition. Those victims deserve justice.”
Two days before Strickland’s scheduled hearing, the attorney general’s office filed a motion asking the judge and the entire Jackson County Circuit Court to disqualify themselves from hearing the case. The circuit judge sided with Baker.
But Schmitt won a delay in the appeals court.
For those closely watching this high-profile wrongful conviction case, the opposition was expected.
For decades, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office — whether led by a Republican or Democrat — has had a blanket policy of opposing any requests for relief in wrongful conviction cases.
According to an investigation by the nonpartisan news nonprofit Injustice Watch, the office has opposed calls for relief in nearly every wrongful conviction case that came before it and has been vacated since 2000.
Former Missouri Supreme Court Judge Laura Denvir Stith raised this concern in a concurring opinion in the Lamar Johnson case.
Stith wrote that in the last decade, the Missouri Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals have granted post-conviction relief or issued writs of habeas corpus that have vacated the convictions of more than 10 people.
In every case, she said, the attorney general has opposed that relief.
The attorney general’s stance was that he was “required” to oppose Johnson’s attempts to obtain a hearing on his newly discovered evidence, so he didn’t show bias to Johnson.
“In suggesting it is his duty, and that of the circuit attorney, as representatives of the state, to oppose a request for habeas or similar relief, the attorney general misunderstands the full extent of the prosecution’s role in the justice system,” Stith wrote.
Lindsey Runnels, the attorney for Johnson, has been watching Strickland’s proceedings to watch the first test of the new law.
“It is exactly what Lamar Johnson’s case made clear,” Runnels said, “that we were without adequate mechanisms for prosecutors who took their role as ministers of justice seriously and wanted to do something when faced with a case like this.”
In 2019, Gardner filed a 67-page motion that she claims provides evidence that the homicide detective in the case made up witness testimonies for the police report that was entered into evidence. Witnesses were not aware of the changes until later.
Documents included in the motion allege that an assistant circuit attorney paid off the only eyewitness and cleared some of his outstanding tickets.
Gardner’s spokeswoman said she would file a motion in Johnson’s case soon.
“The Circuit Attorney is finalizing next steps in this case and will be presenting evidence in court to deliver the justice that Lamar Johnson deserves,” spokeswoman Allison Hawk told The Independent in an email.
Johnson is currently battling with Schmitt over his habeas corpus petition, which could lead to more long delays.
“When Johnson gets a fair hearing, there’s no question that this conviction violates the Constitution in so many ways,” she said. “It’s just getting that fair hearing.”
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