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Missouri attorney general accused of malpractice for fighting Kevin Strickland's release

Pool Photo / Tammy Ljungblad
The Kansas City Star
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker gives her closing arguments in Kevin Strickland's innocence hearing on Wednesday, Nov. 10, in Jackson County Circuit Court.

After 43 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Kevin Strickland was finally exonerated on Tuesday. But his hard-fought freedom came despite months of objections and delays from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt.

Schmitt's handling of the case amounted to "prosecutorial malpractice," Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said on Wednesday.

“I'm hot about that because it's a misunderstanding of the very basics — prosecutor 101,” Baker told KCUR’s Up To Date.

Judge James Welsh exonerated and ordered Strickland, 62, released from the Western Missouri Correctional Center on Tuesday.

Strickland was 18 when a Jackson County Court convicted him in a triple murder case. He has always maintained his innocence.

In a statement released after the decision on Tuesday, a spokesman for Schmitt said, “In this case, we defended the rule of law and the decision that a jury of Mr. Strickland's peers made after hearing all the facts in the case."

“It's such a profoundly idiotic statement," Baker said of Schmitt's response. "It's wrong, and when something's wrong, we should just call it out as that.”

Schmitt’s office was successful in delaying Strickland’s innocence hearing at least twice. Those appeals also resulted in the recusal of all Jackson County Circuit judges from the case — the Missouri Supreme Court appointed the semi-retired Judge Welsh to the hearing in September.

Baker said her office and Schmitt’s both “have the same oath,” suggesting Schmitt failed to uphold his obligation to seek out justice.

“And that offends me, and it should offend everyone who listens to it, because it's just foolhardy and it's silly and it's wrong,” Baker said of Schmitt's arguments.

Carlos Moreno
Kevin Strickland was imprisoned for 43 years for a 1978 murder that he did not commit. On Tuesday, a judge set aside the conviction and ordered him to be immediately freed.

In an email with KCUR, Schmitt’s spokesperson declined to respond to Baker’s accusations.

Even before Strickland’s innocence hearing began, the attorney general's office claimed it sought to create an adversarial environment where the truth could emerge through intense scrutiny.

That intervention was necessary, the logic went, because Baker has said since May she believed in Strickland’s innocence. Schmitt’s office went so far as to ask the judge to retitle Strickland’s case from State of Missouri v. Kevin Strickland to State of Missouri v. Jean Peters Baker, to reflect their claim that Baker’s office was not properly representing the state’s interest.

When state lawmakers drafted a law this summer that allowed Baker to challenge Strickland’s conviction in court, “the General Assembly intended to provide a check to the prosecutor's extraordinary new power,” Schmitt’s office wrote in a post-hearing brief. “The Attorney General is that check and has been given discretionary authority to represent the state in proceedings.”

The judge denied that request.

Schmitt's legal tactics have flummoxed Strickland and his family.

Carol Jones, Strickland’s cousin, told KCUR in September that the long, drawn out process put a burden on the entire family.

“I hold fast to my faith that God ain’t going to let me die in this jail, but I’m losing belief that the system is going to work,” Strickland told CBS News last month.

“It is actually disingenuous to say that (the attorney general was) defending a valid jury verdict, because no verdict can be valid when the jury didn't get true real evidence,” said Midwest Innocence Project director Tricia Rojo Bushnell, who helped represent Strickland in court.

Pool Photo / Tammy Ljungblad
The Kansas City Star
The Midwest Innocence Project's Tricia Rojo Bushnell confers with Kevin Strickland during an evidentiary hearing for Strickland on Monday, Nov. 8, in Jackson County Circuit Court in Kansas City.

“A prosecutor's … ethical duty, under all of the guidelines — the (American Bar Association) guidelines and Missouri ethical guidelines — is that prosecutors have a special duty, and that is to do justice, not to convict,” Rojo Bushnell said.

Rojo Bushnell’s organization has worked with numerous exonerees in multiple states. She said it’s not unusual for prosecutors to cooperate with and aid inmates when the facts of the case warrant it.

“All of our clients who've come home in Kansas have all been where the prosecutor agreed and joined the motion,” she said, “and they came home that day.”

Strickland is the first inmate found innocent by the Jackson County prosecutor’s Conviction Review Unit, which works to prevent, identify and fix false convictions.

Strickland’s hearing also has the potential to set legal precedents in Missouri.

“And man, did I learn a lot of things from the attorney generals and their relentlessness — truly their stubbornness,” Baker said. “They taught me a few things that I sure would like to share with my other prosecutor colleagues around the state of Missouri, so they can be successful as well.”

The ruling in Strickland’s favor came two weeks after the conclusion of oral arguments and witness testimony in Jackson County Circuit Court.

After his release, Strickland told reporters gathered outside the Cameron, Missouri, prison that he was an easy mark for law enforcement, who took advantage of his situation.

“I really appreciate (Judge Welsh) taking his time to listen and understand what really happened in 1978,” Strickland said.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3

Luke X. Martin is an assistant producer for KCUR's Up To Date.

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