Kevin Strickland was finally set free last week after spending more than 40 years for a triple murder that he did not commit. He had been convicted in 1979 for the April 25, 1978, murders of Sherrie Black, 22, Larry Ingram, 21, and John Walker, 20 without any physical evidence, despite the fact that there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime. His sentence: life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years, and two concurrent 10-year-sentences. In releasing him, Judge James Welsh, of Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals stated that in addition to the lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime scene, another man convicted in the killings had always maintained that Strickland had not been involved.
What wrecked his life was the identification of a single eye witness, Cynthia Douglas, the only survivor of the attack by four armed men in 1978. After being treated for gunshot wounds, Douglas had been able to identify two of the four men responsible for the attack but could not identify the others. Eventually, she picked Strickland, who was “a known associate” of the two men Douglas had identified as shooters, from a line-up, and that was sufficient for a jury to convict him.
Within a year of Strickland’s conviction based on her ID, Douglas began to tell friends that she thought she had made a mistake, but it was not until 2009 that she decided to do anything about it. She finally sent an email to the Midwest Innocence Project, saying in part that she was “seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused. This incident happened back in 1978, I was the only eyewitness and things were not clear back then, but now I know more and would like to help this person if I can.”
Nice of her to get around to it after thirty years. Ugh. So many of these wrongfully convicted cases rely on eyewitness identification by traumatized observers. I would favor a statute that held as matter of law that such evidence by itself and without corroborating physical evidence cannot overcome the presumption of innocence.
It turns out that Missouri has almost the opposite law. Since Strickland, who never should have been tried or convicted with the weak evidence that was available, was only deemed wrongfully convicted because there wasn’t enough evidence, he doesn’t qualify as proven “actually innocent”—you know, just as I haven’t been proven actually innocent of those same triple murders. “Actual innocence” can only be shown with DNA evidence, according to Missouri’s bone-headed legislators. As a result, even though there is no reason to believe he committed the crime that has cost him four decades of freedom, Missouri feels it doesn’t owe him a cent. If the courts had declared him “actually innocent,” Strickland would be eligible for $100 for every day he was wrongfully imprisoned, or more than $1.5 million dollars. (I hope that’s tax free, but I wouldn’t bet on it.)
Instead, Strickland, 62, is free but has no money, no bank account, no phone or any form of government identification. He is currently staying at his brother’s house.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, only 549 the registry’s 2,900 exonerations involved DNA. Barbara O’Brien, the editor of the database, said, “It’s shortsighted to have a compensation scheme that turns on whether or not there’s DNA evidence of innocence because that has nothing to do with how innocent they are.”
“Shortsighted” is a nicer term than I would have used. (In another case this year involving a man who was exonerated by DNA evidence after 23 years in prison, Missouri fought payment under the law by invoking the statute of limitations.)
Luckily, more than 20,000 Americans have donated to an online fund for Strickland, raising about $1.3 million so far. That’s great, and Kevin Strickland is grateful, but it is not nearly enough for a stolen life.