Missouri man exonerated after 43 years in prison visits mother's grave

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  • A 62-year-old man was exonerated after 43 years in jail.
  • He visited his mother's grave on his first day of freedom.
  • He was one of the longest serving wrongfully convicted inmates in the US.

A 62-year-old African American man who spent decades behind bars for a crime he didn't commit visited his mother's grave on his first day of freedom - a day he believed would never come.

Kevin Strickland, convicted by an all-white jury in 1979 for a triple murder in Kansas City, Missouri, was granted his immediate release on Tuesday after 43 years in prison.

"I didn't think this day was going to come," the bearded and dreadlocked Strickland, who is confined to a wheelchair, told reporters following his release.

His first stop was the grave of his mother, who died in August and suffered from dementia at the end of her life.

"I revisited those tears that I had that day when they told me I was guilty of crimes I didn't commit," Strickland told CNN. "To know my mother was underneath that dirt and I hadn't got a chance to visit with her in the last years.

"A lot of stuff came out," he said. 

I talked to her for a minute. I believe she can feel me, hear me, I do.

Strickland had proclaimed his innocence since being arrested for the 1978 murders, and the Jackson County Prosecutor's Office agreed earlier this year that he had been wrongly convicted.

After reviewing the case, Judge James Welsh ordered Strickland to be freed on Tuesday.

Strickland's exoneration after 43 years behind bars makes him one of the longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmates in the United States, according to the National Registry of Exonerations maintained by several US law schools.

'I believe I can surf' 

Strickland told CNN he now wants to visit the ocean. "Not just see it but get in it," he said. "That'd be a big win.

"God created a big deal there when he put all that water out there," he said.

"I think anybody that's alive should want to see the ocean before they pass, one time in life."

Strickland said he was "big on swimming" as a teenager and he wants to feel the "power of the water."

"At 62, I believe I can surf if they get me out of this chair," he said.

Strickland was convicted after a second trial - the first ended in a mistrial - of 25 April 1978, murders of three people who were tied up and shot.

The only survivor, Cynthia Douglas, identified Strickland as one of the four men who carried out the shooting, but later recanted her testimony.

Two of the men convicted of the murders said Strickland was not involved and identified two other men as having taken part.

There was also no evidence linking Strickland to the crime and he provided an alibi for where he was at the time.

"Strickland was convicted solely on the eyewitness testimony of Douglas, who subsequently recanted her statements," the judge said.

Under these unique circumstances, the Court's confidence in Strickland's conviction is so undermined that it cannot stand, and the judgment of conviction must be set aside.

Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker welcomed the decision.

"This brings justice - finally - to a man who has tragically suffered so so greatly as a result of this wrongful conviction," Baker said in a statement.

Midwest Innocence Project 

Strickland's case was championed by The Midwest Innocence Project of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law after it received a message from Douglas in 2009.

Strickland is not eligible for compensation under Missouri law but a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign created for Strickland by the Midwest Innocence Project, which advocates for the wrongly convicted, has raised more than $322 000.

Strickland's release comes just days after a New York judge threw out the convictions of two men imprisoned for decades for the 1965 assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X.

Four Black men known as the "Groveland Four" accused of raping a white woman in Florida more than 70 years ago were also exonerated this week.

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