American political prisoner: Are Missouri politics keeping an innocent man in prison?

·4 min read

If you’re tired of all the headlines about Kevin Strickland’s 40-year-plus imprisonment and quest for exoneration in a triple murder he appears to have had no part in, first imagine how he and his loved ones must feel.

Second, blame the excruciating, interminable delays on Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt — who has inexplicably gone to the mat to prevent justice at every turn in this chronic outrage.

With even Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker’s office convinced of Strickland’s innocence — along with a growing number of other respected organizations and individuals — Schmitt has gone so far as to maintain that all of the county’s judges weren’t able to fairly decide the case at an upcoming hearing to establish Strickland is wrongfully imprisoned.

The very idea of an innocent person being behind bars for 40-plus years should utterly haunt us all, particularly those tasked with upholding our laws and balancing the scales of justice. Yet Schmitt wanted to go judge shopping in a desperate attempt to prevent Strickland’s innocence from even being heard in court.

Mercifully, Jackson County Judge Kevin Harrell has summarily dismissed Schmitt’s outrageous claim that neither the judge nor his judicial colleagues could be fair. Baker’s office, using a new Missouri law, will now be allowed to present evidence of Strickland’s wrongful conviction in a hearing before Harrell as early as Oct. 6.

“It is presumed that a judge acts with honesty and integrity and will not undertake to preside in a trial in which the judge cannot be impartial,” Harrell quoted case law as holding.

Yet, as the judge noted from another case, someone questioning a judge’s impartiality need only show that “a reasonable person would have factual grounds to find an appearance of impropriety and doubt the impartiality of the court.” The esteemed attorney general for the state of Missouri could not even cross that low threshold.

Then again, the standard is a “reasonable person.” Can Schmitt himself meet that standard? It appears not.

In large part, Schmitt argued that Harrell should recuse himself because Jackson County Presiding Judge Dale Youngs has said he thinks Strickland should be exonerated. In his denial of Schmitt’s request that all the judges should therefore be recused, Harrell assured that “this court is unabashedly independent, unambiguously impartial, humbly competent, and uniquely qualified in executing its judicial obligations.”

This case, and Eric Schmitt’s bizarre dedication to obstructing justice, has become a national embarrassment — not to mention a human tragedy.

Schmitt’s behavior is particularly bewildering to those familiar with his past even-handedness, bipartisanship and heart for children. Sad observers are left to conclude that Schmitt — already an overly political attorney general, and now a candidate to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt — is succumbing to cynical advice from political consultants to eye a political equation in everything.

Even if so, his calculations are way off. If he’s trying to play to the Republican/conservative crowd, he should ask himself: Don’t people of all political persuasions absolutely abhor the idea of an innocent person in prison, much less for four decades? What on Earth is there to gain by fighting to keep an innocent man in prison for a fifth decade?

Truth be known, since an eyewitness later recanted her testimony identifying Strickland at the scene — and did so plaintively, and completely without coercion or ulterior motives — there is nothing tying Strickland to the April 25, 1978, triple murder at 6934 S. Benton Ave. in Kansas City. Even two co-defendants, who entered pleas in the case and have since been released, said Strickland had nothing to do with it. Why would co-defendants, who are usually only too happy to shift the blame to someone else, maintain Strickland’s innocence?

Nor is Baker acting on her own in pressing for Strickland’s exoneration. Former Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Edward “Chip” Robertson has lent his support to her effort — and gung-ho, aggressively anti-crime prosecutors under Baker agree Strickland must be set free.

The only impediment to ending this sad, unending episode is the Missouri attorney general, who has already dragged this out and may appeal Harrell’s ruling to drag it out more. Understandably, in a Monday court filing Baker’s office asks the court to curtail Schmitt’s effort to delay proceedings even further with duplicative depositions and deep dives into evidence that has been well in evidence for years.

Baker is right. Let’s end this injustice now.