Explainer: The Missouri law that led to Strickland decision

Margaret Stafford
Associated Press

Liberty, Mo. — A judge's decision on Tuesday to release longtime inmate Kevin Strickland, of Kansas City, was made possible by a new Missouri law intended to free people who were imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit.

Strickland, 62, was convicted in 1979 of a triple murder in Kansas City. He always maintained that he wasn’t he wasn't at the crime scene, and Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced in May that her office's review of case convinced her that Strickland was telling the truth.

After the Missouri Supreme Court in June declined to hear Strickland's petition for release, Peters Baker used the new state law to seek an evidentiary hearing, which was held in early November. Judge James Welsh ruled Tuesday that Strickland had been wrongfully convicted and ordered him released.

Kevin Strickland is pictured in an interview room at Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo. A judge's decision on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021, to release longtime inmate Kevin Strickland, of Kansas City, was made possible by a new Missouri law intended to free people who were imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit. Strickland, was convicted in 1979 of a triple murder in Kansas City.

What does the law say? 

The law, which was a provision of a larger crime bill, gives prosecutors the authority to seek a hearing if they have new evidence that the convicted person might have been wrongfully convicted.

The hearings are held in the county where the inmate was convicted and the decision whether to release the inmate is up to the judge.

What prompted the law?

The case of Lamar Johnson, a longtime inmate in St. Louis, prompted lawmakers to pass the new law. Johnson has spent 26 years behind bars for a murder he says he didn’t commit.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner sought a new trial for Johnson, saying she had a duty to correct past wrongs, including what she believes was Johnson's wrongful conviction. But the state Supreme Court in March refused to grant Johnson a new trial after Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt argued that Gardner didn't have the authority to seek a new trial so many years after the case was decided.

The court said its ruling wasn't about whether Johnson was innocent, but was intended to address only whether prosecutors could appeal the dismissal of a motion for a new trial years after an inmate was convicted.

State Sen. John Rizzo, a Democrat from Kansas City, said that ruling pushed him and other lawmakers to write the law with input from prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officers and representatives from groups that work to free prisoners.

Rizzo said supporters of the law were concerned that the state had no mechanism for prosecutors to help an inmate even when evidence showed the person was innocent.

“The common theme for everyone was that ethically we have an obligation, if we know someone is in jail and they shouldn't be, to remedy that situation,” Rizzo said.

Rizzo said Lamar Johnson’s attorneys are closely following the proceedings and will decide whether to proceed with an evidentiary hearing after Strickland’s case is decided.

Rizzo stressed that the new law sets a high bar for evidence that is necessary before a prisoner can be released. He said the law includes safeguards to prevent prosecutors from using it to pick “winners and losers.”

Did the new law work as planned during its first case?

Peters Baker became the first prosecutor to use the law when she filed a motion on Aug. 28 — the day the law took effect — seeking a hearing for Strickland. The hearing was quickly scheduled for Sept. 2, with a second hearing scheduled for the next day, prompting many to believe Strickland was about to be released.

Schmitt, a Republican running for Senate who has said he thinks Strickland is guilty, successfully filed an emergency motion to stop the hearing, arguing that his office didn't have time to prepare. He filed subsequent motions seeking to intervene in the case, including one that argued all judges in the 16th Circuit Court, which includes Jackson County, should be recused from the case because of a perceived bias in Strickland's favor.

The Missouri Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court ruled in Schmitt's favor.

Rizzo said proponents of the law intended for prosecutors to be in “the driver's seat” during the hearings and for the attorney general's office to be only “an active observer,” that was allowed to petition if it felt the law was being abused or if it had its own evidence to bring forward.

Rizzo said the Missouri Court of Appeals ruling “created law out of thin air" and gave the attorney general “way more responsibility" in the process than ever intended.

Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, declined to answer questions about the attorney general's interpretation of the new law.