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Editorial: Strickland's case shows why Missouri's compensation law needs a rewrite

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial Board, St. Louis Post-Dispatch on

Published in Op Eds

The exoneration of Kevin Strickland, who spent almost 43 years in prison for murders he didn’t commit, has spotlighted the cruel cynicism of Missouri’s political leadership, with both the governor and attorney general refusing to correct this injustice due to political considerations. It’s also spotlighting an injustice in Missouri law, which doesn’t allow compensation to be paid for wrongly imprisoned people unless DNA evidence is part of their exoneration.

That’s a senseless standard that doesn’t take into account a situation like Strickland’s, in which even prosecutors now acknowledge his innocence. The law should be updated to compensate any imprisoned Missourian found to have been wrongfully convicted. Conservative lawmakers should be the first to acknowledge the gross injustice and need for just compensation when the state deprives an innocent person of his or her life or liberty.

Strickland, who is Black, was convicted in a 1978 triple murder in Kansas City by an all-white jury despite a lack of any physical evidence tying him to the crime. Two men who confessed said Strickland, 18 at the time, wasn’t involved. The shotgun used in the murders had someone else’s fingerprint on it. The sole witness to put Strickland at the scene later recanted, saying he wasn’t there and that she’d been pressured by police to name him.

None of that moved Gov. Mike Parson, who denied Strickland a pardon, saying his case wasn’t a “priority” — unlike, apparently, the case of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple Parson pardoned for their gun-waving antics toward protesters marching past their home in 2020.

It also failed to move state Attorney General Eric Schmitt. He broke away from his politically inspired lawsuits against responsible pandemic policies long enough to launch a politically inspired attempt to keep Strickland imprisoned, saying he remained convinced of Strickland’s guilt even though those who actually prosecuted him say he’s innocent. There is, it seems, no price too high for Schmitt to get that U.S. Senate seat he covets.

 

A judge did what Parson and Schmitt wouldn’t, and released Strickland. Missouri law provides compensation of $50 per day of imprisonment for inmates who are deemed actually innocent (as opposed to convictions overturned on technical grounds) — but such compensation is available only when DNA testing is responsible for the exoneration. Since there’s no DNA test that can prove someone wasn’t at a crime scene, Strickland is denied the more than $765,000 that Missouri would otherwise have owed him for those lost years.

The fact that Strickland has received more than $1 million in donations through a GoFundMe campaign to reclaim his life is an encouraging statement about society today. But the fact that such a route was necessary in the absence of just compensation from the state should be a humiliation to every Missourian, and motivation to change that law.

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