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Kevin Strickland says he’s not angry – but he’s ‘disgusted and disappointed about what has happened to me’. Photograph: Kansas City Star/TNS

Exonerated former prisoner tries to start life anew says ‘You can’t catch those 43 years’

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A new Missouri bill could make Kevin Strickland and other exonerees eligible for restitution payments

By Edward Helmore in Kansas City

It’s been more than two weeks since Kevin Strickland was released from the Western Missouri correctional center and now he often wakes at 3.30 am, long before the dawn, with an urge to get outside.

 

For 43 years of a sentence under a former Missouri law known as the “Hard 50” – which required Strickland to serve at least 50 years before he would be eligible for parole – that was an impossibility.

But on 23 November, Strickland, 62, was discharged from the state’s custody, ending his incarceration for a 1978 triple murder he always maintained – and local prosecutors and Kansas City officials now agree – he did not commit. Now he’s waking at his brother’s place.

“I’m waking up anxious to get outside,” Strickland told the Guardian at his lawyer’s 38th floor office in Kansas City, the Great Plains out spread out across the arc of the windows. “I want to know and feel light. Three o’clock in the morning, I’m ready. Time to go. I don’t know where I’m going but I know it’s time to go.”

In the moment that Strickland walked free, he was Missouri’s longest serving inmate. His conviction for the murders of Sherrie Black, 22, Larry Ingram, 21, and John Walker, 20, during a home invasion largely rested on the eyewitness testimony of the sole survivor of the crime, Cynthia Douglas.

Douglas recanted her testimony in 2009, saying she had been pressured by prosecutors to identify Strickland, a Black man who was then 18 years old. But until his case was taken up by the Midwest Innocence Project, which was joined in an effort to overturn his conviction by Jackson county prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, there was little Strickland could do.

“You can’t even imagine – and you don’t want to,” Strickland says of his incarceration. “It’s tough to be told when to do things every day. When to lay down. Eat. Sleep. Play. And to know those things are going to repeat day after day after day so long as you keep living – and that it’s not going to change.”

“You’ve just got to go through it. It’s dark. I didn’t check out. You have to face it. Deal with it. I’ve seen several suicides, so that would be an indication their will and strength had been compromised.”

Strickland, who is confined to a wheelchair until his spinal stenosis is treated, has become in many ways an example of criminal justice inequities, and not just in the circumstances of his conviction – no physical evidence tied him to the crime scene; an all-white jury came back after two hours, though he recalls 15 or 30 minutes. “They sure didn’t waste any time,” he says.

It’s tough to be told when to do things every day. And to know those things are going to repeat so long as you keep living

          Kevin Strickland

His case has also drawn attention to a Missouri law that denies restitution unless an exoneration results solely from DNA profiling analysis. Last week, state representative Mark Sharp filed a bill to change the state’s restitution law to include people found innocent as the result of an evidentiary method. The proposal would allow eligible people to receive as much as $100 aday for every day they spent incarcerated after conviction, or $36,500 a year.

In Strickland’s case that would be about $1,569,500 – just short of the $1,734,370 raised by the Innocence Project’s GoFundMe page. In Kansas City last week, many said they had repeatedly donated small amounts to the fund, a gesture that could be interpreted as a show of sympathy and popular resistance to injustice.

But not all are on board with Strickland’s release, which followed a law passed in April that gave Baker, the county prosecutor, the right to ask the court to vacate Strickland’s guilty verdict.

Missouri’s fiercely conservative attorney general, Eric Schmitt, battled to uphold Strickland’s conviction, delayed his hearing and attempted to block his release with a series of motions, each rejected by retired Missouri appeals court judge James Walsh.

“I’d always felt the attorney general’s office was going to oppose everything,” Strickland says. “They’d oppose the change of the day from Monday to Tuesday. It’s what they do.”

Missouri governor Mike Parson also rebuffed appeals to pardon him, arguing that it was not a “priority”, even as he pardoned Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the Missouri couple who confronted racial justice protesters with guns last year.

But Strickland is now a hero to many. Kansas City mayor Quinton Lucas invited him to switch on the Christmas lights on a 100-foot-tall fir tree; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said he hoped Strickland’s release “can be a thing that doesn’t let people get in that same situation that he was in and lose a big part of their life”.

Strickland says he’s not angered by four decades of incarceration. Anger is a luxury for others, he says, but one that he does not have an inclination to indulge. “I can’t waste energy in anger, so I don’t get angry, because anger sometimes make you get physical. Anger is a strong word and it brings on negativity. I’m just disgusted and disappointed about what has happened to me.”

As in other recent wrongful conviction releases, including Anthony Broadwater, who served 16 years after being misidentified by author Alice Sebold as the perpetrator of her rape, the question of restitution is a question that keeps surfacing. Having been imprisoned for his entire adult life, Strickland has no savings or ability to show work history for social security entitlements. He plans to use the funds that have been raised “wisely, not wastefully. No partying. There won’t be none of that.”

“I’m truly grateful, and I’m not just saying that because it’s the politically correct thing to say. I need it, and I didn’t know there was so many caring people out there.” But the attention he’s getting is unfamiliar. “I can’t say I enjoy it. Big groups are too much, and I don’t like people constantly rolling up me. But you got to take the bitter with the sweet.”

His plan is to find a quiet, safe place to live, away from most people, and to try to appreciate the days he has “moving forward”.

“I’m going to eat what I want to eat, do a little swimming, and just try to enjoy the remainder of my life.” He might like to live in the country. “I’m a country boy at heart,” he says. “Some people have a problem with squirrel and rabbit. But I’m good with them. I’ll eat some raccoon, deer, wild turkey, snake. And I want to try ‘gator.”

But his real ambition is to go fishing. “I’d fish anywhere you told me I could fish. When I fish, I’m not fishing for sport, I fish to eat. That guy Jeremy [Wade, host of TV show River Monsters] – I’d like to go out fishing with him. He knows what he’s doing.”

During his incarceration, Strickland was once in contact with Cynthia Douglas, the woman who identified him as being one of the murderers, when he heard that she was trying to clear up her mistake.

“I called her to thank her for what she was trying to do. It was just one time. But I knew what had happened – that she had been pressured into saying it was me. I felt pity for her that she’d had to accuse me. But she was trying to do the right thing, so those feelings went out the window.”

Strickland is heartened by the increasing number of exonerees from the criminal justice system. What would make a difference to preventing future wrongful convictions, he believes, is to have a public defender in every precinct before suspects are pulled into a lineup.

“The justice system doesn’t have to change,” Strickland says. “It has to be re-booted from the ground up. The police are relying on civilians to call in tips. They need to find detectives who want to do their jobs, and not rely on civilians to tell them which way to go.”

Being released from long-term incarceration is not simple – mastering a cellphone, for instance, or getting ID can be tricky. The sight of a clock reminds him of head-count time – 5.30am, 7.30, 11, 4, and 10pm. When he was released, he was met by his friend Ricky Kidd, who was exonerated after 23 years and released from Western Missouri correctional.

Kidd’s counsel was to take it slow, take time to acclimate, don’t do anything on anybody’s time but your own. “You can’t catch those 43 years,” Strickland says. “Can’t get them back. They’re gone. Never can. So I need to fix that in my mind and slow down.”

 

About Charles Igbinidu

Charles Igbinidu is a Public Relations practitioner in Lagos, Nigeria

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