A Kansas City man who was jailed for more than 40 years for three murders was released from prison on Tuesday after a judge ruled that he was wrongfully convicted in 1979.
Kevin Strickland, 62, has always maintained that he was home watching television and had nothing to do with the killings, which happened when he was 18 years old.
He learned of the decision to free him when the news scrolled across the television screen as he was watching a soap opera in prison. He said fellow inmates began screaming.
“I’m not necessarily angry. It’s a lot. I think I’ve created emotions that you all don’t know about just yet,” he told reporters as he left the Western Missouri correctional center in Cameron.
“Joy, sorrow, fear. I am trying to figure out how to put them together.”
He said he would like to get involved in efforts to “keep this from happening to someone else”, adding that the criminal justice system “needs to be torn down and redone”.
Judge James Welsh, a retired Missouri court of appeals judge, ruled after a three-day evidentiary hearing requested by a Jackson county prosecutor who said evidence used to convict Strickland had since been recanted or disproven.
Welsh wrote in his judgment that “clear and convincing evidence” was presented that “undermines the Court’s confidence in the judgment of conviction”. He noted that no physical evidence linked Strickland to the crime scene and that a key witness recanted before her death.
“Under these unique circumstances, the Court’s confidence in Strickland’s convictions is so undermined that it cannot stand, and the judgment of conviction must be set aside,” Welsh wrote in ordering Strickland’s immediate release.
The Jackson county prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, who pushed for his freedom, moved quickly to dismiss the criminal charges against him so he could be released.
“To say we’re extremely pleased and grateful is an understatement,” she said in a statement. “This brings justice, finally, to a man who has tragically suffered so, so greatly as a result of this wrongful conviction.”
But Missouri’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, a Republican running for the US Senate, said Strickland was guilty and had fought to keep him incarcerated.
The Republican governor, Mike Parson, who declined Strickland’s clemency requests, tweeted simply that: “The Court has made its decision, we respect the decision, and the Department of Corrections will proceed with Mr Strickland’s release immediately.”
Strickland was convicted in the deaths of Larry Ingram, 21, John Walker, 20, and Sherrie Black, 22, at a home in Kansas City.
The evidentiary hearing focused largely on testimony from Cynthia Douglas, the only person to survive the 25 April 1978 shootings.
She initially identified Strickland as one of four men who shot the victims and testified to that during his two trials.
Welsh wrote that she had doubts soon after the conviction but initially was “hesitant to act because she feared she could face perjury charges if she were to publicly recant statements previously made under oath”.
She later said she was pressured by police to choose Strickland and tried for years to alert political and legal experts to help her prove she had identified the wrong man, according to testimony during the hearing from her family, friends and a co-worker. Douglas died in 2015.