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Wesley Bell: Kevin Strickland, the rule of law, and the arc of justice.

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Kevin Bernard Strickland must have had one happy Thanksgiving this year, with his joy shared by everyone in this state who believes not just in the rule of law but in the arc of justice.

On Nov. 23, Senior Judge James E. Welsh ordered Strickland’s 1979 convictions for capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder vacated. He ordered Strickland, 62, released from prison after more than 40 years of confinement for crimes he did not commit. The judge did not give the state time to refile charges, as is typical when a conviction is overturned, because in this case it was Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker who had moved for Strickland’s convictions to be vacated.

Baker was making good use of a new Missouri law that went into effect in August. Before this law, Missouri had no remedy for convicted people not facing the death penalty who had compelling claims for actual innocence but could point to no procedural error or constitutional violation in their trial record. It was an appalling gap in Missouri law — in the rule of law — and we should be thankful to the Missouri Legislature for changing the law in the interest of justice.

In the court’s thorough and detailed 13-page judgment, Welsh was fair to everyone who worked to convict Strickland in 1979 (after a jury hung in his 1978 trial). This was no malicious wrongful conviction. A victim misidentified Strickland, whom she knew, because he resembled one of the four shooters and picked him out of a lineup based on that misidentification. A detective found her credible, and so did the jury who convicted Strickland on the strength of her testimony in the absence of any forensic evidence.

That victim, Cynthia Douglass, subsequently realized she had made a terrible mistake and confided this to a number of friends and relatives. Though she (wrongly) feared she could be exposing herself to the charge of perjury, in 2009 she wrote to the Midwest Innocence Project to admit her mistake. Sadly, she died in 2015 before the passage of the law that would make her recantation meaningful to Strickland’s future. However, the court rightly judged that her new claim of Strickland’s innocence was admissible as an exemption to the exclusion of hearsay. Strickland and all of us must thank Douglass for her courage and bless her memory.

Additional evidence exonerating Strickland appeared since a jury convicted him in good faith. Two men also convicted of these murders testified that Strickland was not there on April 25, 1978, and had nothing to do with the murders. One of those men, Vincent Bell, even incriminated two of his associates by naming them as the other two shooters. The court found that persuasive enough to credit the usually dubious testimony of a co-conspirator. These are all sound applications of the law — the rule of law — that enabled Welsh to set this historic precedent.

Though Baker, acting on behalf of the state, argued for Strickland’s innocence, she had an adversary in the form of another arm of the state, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who did everything in his power to keep Strickland in prison. Upon their defeat, a Schmitt spokesperson stated: “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.”

That really isn’t true, given that a new law — that also rules this land — enabled the state to consider exculpatory evidence not available to the jury in 1979. More than the attorney general, Baker and the court were defending the rule of law in this matter. Unlike Schmitt, they also were advancing the arc of justice. As a prosecutor, I believe it is our job to seek justice, not convictions.

Wesley Bell is St. Louis County prosecuting attorney.

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