Ethics Dunce: The State Of Missouri


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.


Sources: Business Insider, New York Times 1, 2

15 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: The State Of Missouri

  1. There will be no executing her now, which would be wrong in any event.
    It would be interesting to find out what went through Douglas’s mind over the years, but we won’t be getting more from her since she died in 2015. There are indications that she was under the influence of intoxicants when she first did not point the finger at Strickland, and that then she may have been pressured by law enforcement when she did accuse him after sobering up.
    There can be no true justice for Strickland, assuming he in fact is innocent, which seems to be the case (but who really knows after all this time). The GoFundMe proceeds will help, and legal proceedings against Missouri might. But, stories like this highlight the importance of a presumption of innocence and conviction only when the evidence goes beyond a reasonable doubt. And, as noted, Missouri needs to accept the idea that when they screw up, they have to do all they can to try to make it right.

  2. “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.”

    No job, no work history, no 40-years of job skill-development that would have given him salary increases and benefits and no means of getting credit that isn’t high risk. Not only that, he has no retirement savings, no 401K, he hasn’t paid into Social Security for the last 40 years and he’s 62. When most people are planning for retirement, he was let loose without a cent to his name.

    This is wrong.

    Thank God for GoFundMe.

  3. It’s really disgusting that members of Congress have attempted to ramrod legislation through the system that essentially pays large sums of money to adults and children that broke the law to enter the country, while this man receives absolutely no restitution for being denied his American-born opportunities at gainful employment and prepping for the future due to an actual miscarriage of justice.

    GoFundMe is well and good, but the state of Missouri should make this right on its own.

    …and that first sentence was pretty long…sorry…

      • But, just one comma in all of that, and that, it seems, is punctationally correct. Still, we could quibble over “children that” vs. ‘children who’, eh?
        But, enough pedantry.
        Lawyers! Does he have a reasonable case against Missouri?
        Ethics experts! Do we really know enough about this case to proclaim his innocence?

  4. Here’s Johnny: Do we really know enough about this case to proclaim his innocence? Unless there’s some Missouri law I don’t know about, the answer is absolutely yes (to proclaim him “not guilty,” at least). The only “evidence” ever presented was that of Ms. Douglas, traumatized (and reported intoxicated) at the time, and recanted 12 years ago. On other side, not only did Strickland deny guilt of any involvement, the two men convicted of the murders both asserted the same from the beginning. There was never any physical evidence.

    Note: The NYT article, unlike all the others I read (8, just to check) couldn’t help grabbing the spotlight for its usual sly political dig to make sure readers got the message. Again:

    “Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, a Democrat, said that the exoneration “brings justice — finally — to a man who has tragically suffered so so greatly as a result of this wrongful conviction.” followed by a happy quote from Ms. Baker.

    Then: … “Missouri’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, a Republican running for U.S. Senate in 2022, fought the exoneration.”

    [bold mine]

    • Right on. He is innocent in the eyes of the law, and hence society and the government, if he is not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. he doesn’t have to be proven “not guilty” to be declared innocent if there was never legitimate evidence to prove him guilty. Just as I don’t have to prove that I didn’t kill those three people, neither does Strickland.

  5. It’s funny how I read this right after reading the situation with Alice Sebold and her part of putting an innocent man in prison for her rape (which she then made a fortune on). A lot of similarities in a lot of events like this

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