Out of prison for a month: How he’s rebuilding his life

Kevin Strickland spent 43 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit

By Luke Nozicka - The Kansas City Star

Kevin Strickland, 62, exonerated in a 1978 triple murder that he has always said he did not commit, has been free for one month. He was released on Nov. 23, 2021, after more than 42 years behind bars. Strickland, pictured in his basement room, suffered the longest wrongful conviction in Missouri history.

Kevin Strickland, 62, exonerated in a 1978 triple murder that he has always said he did not commit, has been free for one month. He was released on Nov. 23, 2021, after more than 42 years behind bars. Strickland, pictured in his basement room, suffered the longest wrongful conviction in Missouri history.

Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star/TNS

Rev. Darryl Burton, left, helps Kevin Strickland find shoes while shopping for winter clothes Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.

Rev. Darryl Burton, left, helps Kevin Strickland find shoes while shopping for winter clothes Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.

Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star/TNS

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Three weeks after he was freed from prison, Kevin Strickland was driven around a changed Kansas City, his daughter showing him where she grew up decades earlier.

She was an infant in 1978 when Strickland, then 18, was arrested in a triple murder that would lead to Missouri’s longest known wrongful conviction. Now living on the East Coast, his daughter, who is 43, recently visited Kansas City to spend time with her exonerated father — a week he described as exciting and full of love, but one that also made him nervous.

“I mean, you only get to make one first impression,” Strickland, 62, told The Kansas City Star. “And this would have been my first impression with my daughter outside prison.”

It has been more than a month since Jackson County prosecutors secured Strickland’s freedom, arguing before a judge that he spent 43 years locked up for execution-style killings that he did not commit. The judge agreed his conviction could not stand.

Since his release in November, Strickland has kept busy: He lit the mayor’s Christmas Tree at Crown Center to a cheering crowd; he walked barefoot in the grass at Kauffman Stadium at the invite of the Kansas City Royals; and he sat for a dozen media interviews, including with a newspaper based in Spain.

Each time he is asked about his best experiences in the free world, Strickland searches for a grand answer. But it’s really the everyday things: sleeping on a bed, with a cushion, that is not attached to a wall; being able to adjust the temperature of his water during showers. Like nearly everything else, that’s regulated behind bars. Now, he can “scald or freeze” himself when he wants.

During an interview in one of his brothers’ basements, where he is living in the metro area until he finds his own place, Strickland said he is trying to make sense of the frightening world around him and spend time with loved ones, which included a week with his daughter. She asked that she not be named to protect her own privacy.

To his daughter, the days could be frantic. She tried to help her father — who has never owned a car, rented an apartment or, until recently, used a cellphone — start a life as an adult outside prison walls. He needed paperwork, but there were challenges. One agency could not find his birth certificate, which to Strickland felt like the government “didn’t even have me existing.”

At times, though, the two sat in his bedroom — he catches himself still referring to it as his “cell” — and talked for hours each day, he said, trying to get to know one another better. They began to acknowledge each other’s “cans and can’ts, dos and don’ts, wills and wont’s,” as Strickland put it. Their individual ways of looking at life.

In a phone interview, Strickland’s daughter said she knows him well, given that she visited and spoke with him by phone and through letters. Throughout her life, he has always taken his passion for fatherhood seriously.

Asked if there were moments for which she wished Strickland could have been present, she paused. Then, she responded: “All of it.”

“It’s unfair he wasn’t able to be there,” said his daughter, whose mother married another man. “I love my other dad, there’s no doubt about that. But also, you know, Kevin shouldn’t have been taken away.”

A long-awaited release

Strickland’s daughter, then 7 weeks old, was there the day he was snatched from her.

It was April 26, 1978, when two police officers arrived at the Strickland household near East 56th Street and Jackson Avenue, about a mile north of Swope Park, to question him about a shooting that left three people dead the night before at 6934 S. Benton Ave.

Strickland’s first trial ended in a hung jury, when the only Black juror declined to convict. He was then found guilty of capital murder by an all-white jury almost entirely on the word of a traumatized woman who was shot during the attack. After prosecutors waived the death penalty, a 19-year-old Strickland was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 50 years.

That eyewitness would later recant to numerous relatives, disclosing that she was pressured by detectives to identify Strickland. Two men who admitted guilt in the killings also swore, for decades, that Strickland had nothing to do with the crime. That included one who repeatedly proclaimed Strickland’s innocence before a judge four months after Strickland, 5-foot-3 and 135 pounds, was sent to Missouri’s maximum-security penitentiary for men, which in his lifetime had been dubbed by Time magazine the “bloodiest 47 acres in America.”

It didn’t matter. Prosecutors did nothing.

It would be another four decades before the Midwest Innocence Project appointed a full-time investigator to his case; before The Star reported out its own investigation into his innocence claim in September 2020; before the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office launched a review that led Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to seek Strickland’s freedom during a months-long fight with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.

When he was released Nov. 23, Strickland rolled in a donated wheelchair out through a metal detector at the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron, waving his hands above his head to the lawyers who gave him his autonomy back.

“He’s here!” one of them shouted.

On the drive back to Kansas City, a helicopter, likely from a news station, tailed his lawyer’s car. Strickland wanted to go straight to the gravesite of his mother, who died in August amid Baker’s legal battle with Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office. Strickland spoke a few words at her burial site, but he would have preferred to have been there alone.

Asked where his mother is buried, Strickland struggled to come up with the location. He does not know his way around Kansas City and the additional highways that now run through it. The city’s three tallest buildings — including One Kansas City Place, where some of his lawyers work — went up while he was incarcerated. He described himself as not from this world.

Strickland’s first night in his room, down a staircase attached to his brother’s messy garage, was scary. He was used to living in a concrete cell, where he knew other people were locked out. Wooden homes, with their flimsy doors, are not secure to him.

On the floor next to his bed are orange, water-resistant sandals, one of four pairs of shoes he brought home from his time as “offender” 36922 in the Missouri Department of Corrections. Loved ones have told him to throw them away, to “get rid of that bad karma,” but prison can teach a person to not part with anything of value.

A radio he’s owned since 2004, which plays his favorite hip-hop cassette tapes, sits on his bed stand. Among his possessions is a fan he previously held close to his sweaty face when, without air conditioning, temperatures sweltered during summer months behind bars.

Propped against his desk is a Louisville Slugger bat that the Royals told Strickland belonged to Frank White, whose career he followed, though Strickland is skeptical that it has ever been used. Told that White, now Jackson County executive, attended the evidentiary hearing that led to his exoneration, Strickland looked astonished.

“He was?” he asked in disbelief.

Lined along the basement walls are photographs of Strickland’s family members, including ones who died while he suffered the seventh longest wrongful imprisonment acknowledged in U.S. history.

While in town, Strickland’s daughter suggested they visit the gravesite of his father, L.R. Strickland, who served in the U.S. Army in Korea, at the Leavenworth National Cemetery. Strickland could not attend his funeral, like his mother’s, when he died in 2011.

For the first time, Strickland earlier this month used a grave locator to find a loved one’s resting place — with the section, row and number. His daughter saw it as an opportunity for them to problem solve together. In near freezing temperatures, they found the white headstone that bears a cross above his father’s name. In coats and blue jeans, Strickland knelt down under the gray sky. He said a few words. His 19-year-old granddaughter, who accompanied her mother on the visit, stood nearby.

It’s a moment Strickland’s daughter won’t forget. After about 10 minutes, he was ready to go.

“It ain’t that I don’t have no heart or nothing like that. It’s just, what can I do?” Strickland later asked. “I mean, sit here and look at the dirt. I say a prayer and give thanks to him. … A lot of people believe people passing on can hear everything you say and I don’t want to believe in all that spooky stuff. But if he can, he know I love him.”

‘Visualize a home’

As a child, Strickland’s daughter had a general understanding that he was incarcerated for something he did not do.

She knew, even then, that he could remain there forever. She did not know the details of the case, though, and more recently learned of them through Star reporting.

It was surreal for her to see Strickland in clothing that had not been issued by a correctional facility. He dressed up for her and her daughter, who had visited him in prison months earlier. His new attire brought a smile to her face, and they had a long embrace.

Behind bars, Strickland asked his daughter for photographs from significant moments in her life, but she was hesitant to send them. She was, and remains, a private person, and does not like her picture being shared.

So if he ever got out, Strickland wanted to see everywhere she lived and went to school. They did just that throughout the week, driving around the city’s East Side. The kindergarten and elementary schools she attended, as well as one of the homes she grew up in, have been shuttered or demolished. One of those schools once stood in what is now a grassy lot, a realization that was shocking even to her.

“He wanted to get out of the car and kind of look at the space,” she said, “and I guess try to visualize a home being there or a school being there, but the stuff was just gone.”

Strickland was surprised she had spent time in some of the areas, which she told him “might look kind of bad, but it didn’t look like this when I was here.” She assured him that she was always in a safe environment.

In the parking lot of a now-closed church, she showed him where she learned to ride a bike and roller skate. She explained how, on Sundays, the lot had been packed with parishioners. He was genuinely interested, but she could hear the sadness in his voice.

Other times, Strickland showed her the places he was raised and where she was conceived. They also made time to taste test ice cream, to see who liked which flavors, and to shoot pool in Lenexa, Kansas, with Strickland giving his granddaughter pointers.

“I don’t know how he kept his skills up over those years,” his daughter remembered with a laugh, “but he’s good.”

Strickland has not yet been able to spend as much time with his son, who Strickland had when he was 14. Now 48, he lives in Florida with five of his own children. He was 4 years old when Strickland last saw him.

Over the phone, their relationship sounds wonderful, Strickland said. But he does not know if his son holds any resentment for “not being there for him.”

After speaking to The Star, Strickland’s daughter said in an email that she wanted employees of the legal system to remember that their work has real world consequences. Police and prosecutors won professionally in her father’s case, but they “ruined an innocent man’s life, the lives of his family, and altered any legacy he intended to build with and for his descendants.”

“(Forty-three) years later, the broken family has to try to fix what ‘public servants’ tore apart,” she wrote. “This case will ultimately fade away from being newsworthy but the disconnect that it created in this family will have an impact for generations to come.”

Misidentified, still

Strickland’s daughter left town on the morning of Dec. 21. By the afternoon, Strickland hit the button for the garage door at his brother’s home and tried to jog outside, but he ran through the sensors near the ground. The door stopped closing and reversed course.

“Is that how that works?” he asked, looking back at the device.

Darryl Burton, who spent 24 years in prison after he was wrongly convicted in a St. Louis killing, arrived minutes later to take Strickland shopping for winter clothes in Independence.

Exonerated in 2008, Burton now runs Miracle of Innocence — an Overland Park, Kansas-based organization that helps exonerees — along with co-founder Lamonte McIntyre, who spent 23 years in prison for a double murder he did not commit in Kansas City, Kansas. The group’s sticker on the back of Burton’s large, black truck was ripped, though its message was clear: “WE FREE THE INNOCENT.”

Burton has now worked with dozens of people who languished in prison for crimes they did not commit. In fact, he said from the driver’s seat, two from Ohio and New York reached out recently because they were struggling.

“Mhm,” Strickland said, sitting next to him. “A psychological struggle.”

Strickland later changed the subject.

“I got my permit today,” he said.

“Oh man,” Burton replied, “you’re finna get it.”

“I’ll be mobile soon,” Strickland said.

Hours before, Strickland failed the written exam. But when he passed on another attempt, the employees, who knew his backstory, applauded. That’s when Strickland realized he was in a driver examination division of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. While troopers were not involved in his wrongful conviction, a building operated by law enforcement was still cause for concern.

“They’re bigger than the police!” Strickland said, a deep chuckle following.

Burton assured him that the police wouldn’t be bothering him anymore.

Once inside a department store, Strickland tried on some gloves. He soon found himself taking pictures with two strangers, as well as an employee, who had seen him on the news. It happens every time he goes out.

“Congratulations,” one man offered.

“I’m glad you got justice,” another said.

To Strickland, the men seemed sincere.

Most people who approach him are kind and apologetic, digging into their pockets and offering him what cash they have. They know the state of Missouri will not compensate him, he said. But if he saw actor Brad Pitt, for example, he would not walk up to him. He called it a “downer” that people, he assumes, are only being courteous because of what he’s been through.

Strickland is also still being misidentified. Since his release, a dozen people have claimed they remember him from school, but when they name the institution, he tells them he never went there. It’s a sore spot for him; faulty identification is what sent him to prison.

As he went to another store, gripping his walker, Strickland bent down to pick up a penny. While 31,000 people have donated more than $1.7 million to his GoFundMe account — amounting to about $41,000 for each of his years in prison — he said he does not have an income and does not know if he’ll get one. He does not understand why people simply step over money, even pennies.

On the way home, Strickland said he wants to get out of Missouri. He has never been anywhere but the Show Me State and has barely been into Kansas. He remarked that he had done “a tour” of Missouri through its prisons, including three stops at the infamous Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, also known as “The Walls.” It’s where, in the 1980s, Burton and Strickland did other people’s time together.

Burton called the prison a “madhouse.” As the sun set, the men described life there as like trying to navigate through human landmines, where another man could plot their demise while they slept. They had to remain hypervigilant, using all of their senses at once. Burton said he will never forget the screams he heard at night, when other men were getting attacked.

“Any one of us could’ve gotten killed in that place,” Burton said.

A needed repair

Two days later, Baker dropped by to give Strickland framed versions of her petition — the first filed under a new state law that allows prosecutors to seek to free innocent prisoners — and the judge’s order releasing him. He asked her to autograph some of it.

Baker put together a packet for Strickland that included a letter stating his exoneration paperwork is authentic, and if anyone had questions, they could call her office. She hopes to get his DNA out of police databases and his arrest expunged from his record.

Strickland is now on Baker’s list of people she checks in on every holiday. She considers him a victim of the system, and he shares a grace that she sometimes sees in crime victims.

“They demonstrate sort of a quiet resolve and a quiet dignity,” Baker said, “even though there’s so many layers of hurt behind that.”

Since he came home, Strickland has tried to take in as much as he can. He struggles to sleep — he goes to bed at 10:15 p.m. and finds himself awake at 1:45 a.m., before attempting to force himself to get another few hours. He’s well aware of how much he has missed. He knows he can’t catch up, but he does not want to miss any more. His mind races.

Last week, he had been grappling with Christmas plans. Three households wanted him at their events, and he thought he might just wind up by himself with a McDonald’s sandwich. He hoped to feel love wherever he went, for tears to come to his eyes.

His holiday, a quiet and intimate one spent at a cousin’s home, was ultimately better than fast food: He cooked turkey, cornbread and mac and cheese, among other things. He played with a relative’s 6-year-old daughter, who warmed up to him.

Seeing relatives has not always been easy. Some did not contact him for years, yet now tell him how much they missed him. It’s difficult, he said, to not respond, “Well you had every opportunity in the world to reach out to me and didn’t, so it’s hard to believe that you missed me.” Still, he said, they’re family, so he is going to love them.

Strickland, who has spinal stenosis, wants to get his back fixed. Once he does that, he could see himself working as a forklift driver, something he did as a teenager. He also intends to see a therapist; he has known for years that he needs to talk to somebody.

He does not want an extravagant life. He’d like to move to a coast, to see and spend time in the vast ocean. He floated the idea of traveling across the country in an RV. He wants a vegetable garden. Out in the country, alone, where he can fish and hunt.

Strickland urged people to call their representatives about broadening Missouri’s narrow compensation law for the wrongly convicted, which more lawmakers publicly supported in the weeks after his release. Only prisoners who prove their innocence through a specific DNA testing statute are entitled to money, which was not the case for Strickland or most exonerees across the country.

He said no amount of money, though, could make up for what state actors did to him.

Asked what “justice” might look like, Strickland’s daughter said she does not like that word. She thinks too many Americans, who tie the word to the criminal legal system, use it as a “crutch.”

“For sure, not just in his case but for any person who is wrongfully incarcerated, there’s need to be repair,” she said. “There needs to be an attempt to undo the harm that’s been caused by having them ripped away from life, from their family, from their friends. And I don’t know what that looks like, but I know that it is as huge an undertaking as the harm that was inflicted.”

What Strickland wants most is something he will never obtain: the time he missed. When he looks at his daughter, he sees each year he was gone. He does not expect to live another 43 years. And he knows he will never be 18 again.

“I know there was a lot of love there for me, if I’d been there, and I had a lot of love to give — and they can’t give that back to me,” Strickland said. “And I will always be hurt. I will always be hurt.”

Kevin Strickland, 62, exonerated in a 1978 triple murder that he has always said he did not commit, has been free for one month. He was released on Nov. 23, 2021, after more than 42 years behind bars. Strickland, pictured in his basement room, suffered the longest wrongful conviction in Missouri history.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2022/01/web1_US-NEWS-MO-STRICKLAND-KC.jpgKevin Strickland, 62, exonerated in a 1978 triple murder that he has always said he did not commit, has been free for one month. He was released on Nov. 23, 2021, after more than 42 years behind bars. Strickland, pictured in his basement room, suffered the longest wrongful conviction in Missouri history. Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star/TNS
Rev. Darryl Burton, left, helps Kevin Strickland find shoes while shopping for winter clothes Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021.
https://www.limaohio.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2022/01/web1_US-NEWS-MO-STRICKLAND-2-KC.jpgRev. Darryl Burton, left, helps Kevin Strickland find shoes while shopping for winter clothes Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star/TNS
Kevin Strickland spent 43 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit

By Luke Nozicka

The Kansas City Star

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