By Alisha Ebrahimji | CNN
The first thing Kevin Strickland did after being acquitted of a triple murder he didn’t commit was visit his mother’s grave.
“To know that my mother was covered in that dirt and that I hadn’t had a chance to visit her in years past…I looked again at those tears I shed when they told me I was guilty of a crime that I hadn’t committed,” Strickland told CNN’s Brianna Keilar Wednesday.
At age 19, Strickland, who is now 62, was convicted in 1979 of one count of manslaughter and two counts of second-degree murder in a triple homicide in Kansas City, Missouri. He was given a 50-year life sentence with no chance of parole and served 43 years of that sentence behind bars at the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri, — until this Tuesday, when senior judge James Welsh filed his verdict seeking conviction. to destroy Strickland .
Strickland said he learned of his release through a breaking news report that interrupted the soap opera he was watching on Tuesday.
All criminal counts against Strickland were dismissed. His release makes his incarceration the longest wrongful sentence in Missouri history and one of the longest in the nation, according to The National Registry of Exonerations.
Faced with a world he doesn’t know much about
Strickland’s first night out of prison was a restless night, among other things kept awake by thoughts of returning to prison, he said Wednesday.
“I’m used to living in a tight, closed cell where I know exactly what’s going on with me,” he said. “And being at home and hearing the creaking of the house and electrical wiring and whatever… I was a little scared. I thought someone was coming for me.”
Now that Strickland is a free man adjusting to a new world – a world without being locked in a cell and subject to disciplined prison routines – he works to build a house and live for himself without any financial help from Missouri.
In Missouri, according to the Innocence Project, only those acquitted through DNA testing are eligible for $50 a day incarceration after conviction. That was not the case for Strickland.
Thirty-six states and Washington, DC have laws on the books that provide compensation for freedmen, according to the Innocence Project. The federal standard to reimburse those wrongly convicted is a minimum of $50,000 a year incarceration, plus an additional amount for each year spent on death row.
A GoFundMe account has been set up by the Midwest Innocence Project to help him restart his life.
Convicted as a teenager, acquitted as an adult
Four people were shot in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 25, 1978, resulting in three deaths, according to CNN affiliate KSHB. The lone survivor of the crime, Cynthia Douglas, who died in 2015, testified in 1978 that Strickland was at the scene of the triple murder.
Douglas suffered a bullet wound and then told police that Vincent Bell and Kiln Adkins were two of the perpetrators. But she did not identify Strickland, who she knew, as at the scene until a day later, according to KSHB, after it was suggested that Strickland’s hair matched Douglas’ description of the shooter. Douglas claimed her initial failure to identify him was due to the use of brandy and marijuana, according to KSHB.
But for the past 30 years, she says she made a mistake and misidentified Strickland. According to KSHB, Douglas made attempts to free Strickland through the Midwest Innocence Project.
The two attackers she identified at the scene both pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and each had to serve approximately 10 years in prison for the crimes, according to Strickland’s attorney Robert Hoffman.
Over the past year, there have been several attempts to release Strickland.
In May, a petition was filed with the Missouri Supreme Court for his release with a cover letter describing the results of an investigation by the Attorney General’s Conviction Integrity Unit. The group assesses claims of innocence after conviction where new and credible evidence of innocence exists.
In May, Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker was joined by attorney for Strickland and the Midwest Innocence Project to present evidence that has surfaced since his conviction, according to court documents. But in June, the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear Strickland’s petition.
Later that month, Missouri governor Mike Parson released a list of 36 people he had pardoned, but Strickland was not one of them.
Earlier this month, Strickland testified at a three-day hearing — at which eyewitness statements were taken under oath — and the evidence presented was enough to exonerate him.
In 2020, there were 129 exemptions nationwide. Defendants released last year lost a total of 1,737 years behind bars, an average of 13.4 years per acquittal, according to a report by The National Registry of Exonerations. And 30% of wrongful convictions in the registry’s database can be traced to misidentifications of eyewitnesses.