It’s hard to put yourself in Kevin Strickland’s shoes when he doesn’t feel completely in it himself. On April 26, 1978, when he was 18 years old, the police knocked on his door to ask him some questions about a triple homicide that occurred the night before, which he had only heard about on the news. That morning she was getting ready to take care of her six-week-old daughter alone for the first time while her mother, her then-girlfriend, went to the doctor. The young woman was leaving the door when the agents arrived. Kevin never took care of that girl. He was sentenced to life in prison in a process riddled with holes. Last week, 43 years later, he was exonerated after one of the longest wrongful sentences in American history.
He is 62 years old, he is in a wheelchair and the urban bustle stuns him. On December 2, when he talks to MRT, he has been on the street for nine days, but tells that he is still in prison. He calls his room “cell”; to his bed, “bunk”, and says that in the morning he still sits still, waiting to hear the bell that warns him that he can get up to go to breakfast until after a while he realizes that there is no more doorbell. He still sleeps without sleep, on guard, like he sleeps in places where you can be killed at night. He does not recognize anything about Kansas City, the city in Missouri where he lived and where he was buried alive. His parents died, his siblings grew apart, his girlfriend married someone else and he has only seen his daughter five times in these more than four decades.
It is impossible to put yourself in the shoes of someone like Kevin Strickland when he has not found it himself. “I know I’m awake, but I can’t stop thinking that someone is going to shake me and say no, that I’m dreaming, that I’ve been taken for a ride, that I’m still in prison,” he says slowly in the office of the lawyers who have taken his case, looking down continuously. He apologizes several times during the conversation. “I don’t know how to talk to normal people, I was raised among animals,” he says, with a sudden and disconcerting sweetness.
When he entered prison, Jimmy Carter ruled and everything that has happened afterwards has been voluntarily withdrawn as a survival strategy. 9/11 did not shake his life, the fall of the Berlin Wall did not give a damn, the names of Barack Obama or Donald Trump mean little to him. “I needed to disconnect from the outside world so as not to suffer, above all I avoided seeing the publicity, all those things that I could never have, it hurt too much,” he says.
Nor did he make many friends with the people inside, many people who, he says, were the worst in each house. He quickly learned to speak little. Once, in the recreation area, they tried to kill him by throwing a weight at his head from an upper floor because a guy had been upset by a comment he had made to a friend of his. He did not look up to see who had done it, it was the way to stay alive and to continue fighting for his freedom.
Strickland has always pleaded not guilty to the crime. On April 25, 1978, three twenty-somethings — Sherrie Black, Larry Ingram, and John Walker — were shot to death in a house in a working-class Kansas City neighborhood. Two convicted of the crime, Vincent Bell and Kim Adkins, pleaded guilty but swore he had nothing to do with it. Relatives had corroborated his alibi that night. I do not care. The case was basically based on the testimony of the sole survivor of the shooting, Cynthia Douglas, who was injured and later retracted alleging police pressure.
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He had been able to identify only two of the attackers and, 24 hours after the event, still in full shock —She had to pass herself off as dead to avoid being shot — they put her before a line of suspects, including Kevin Strickland, whom the police had come to pick up from his house that morning when he was going to take care of his daughter. Douglas knew him from the neighborhood, pointed him out, and his life became the life of inmate 36,922.
Kansas City, like many other American cities, was experiencing a terrifying crime wave then, and prosecutors and law enforcement were eager to close cases, offer justice. Strickland, a black kid from a poor neighborhood, something of a stray and Bell’s acquaintance, was cannon fodder. There were two trials. The former’s jury, made up of 11 white people and one black person, was unable to reach a verdict because the only African American refused to convict him. The second jury, all white, sent him into the shadows for life, with no possibility of third degree in 50 years. He was 19, it was 1979.
A year after the trial, the witness began to say publicly that she had been wrong, but it was not until 2009 that she wrote a letter to The Innocence Project, the platform of lawyers who work on the exoneration of innocents, with these words: “I am looking for information on how to help a person who has been wrongly convicted. I was the only witness and then things were not clear, but now I know more and I want to help this person ”.
For all those years, he himself had tried to fight for his exoneration. He petitioned the courts, water. He brought in the second, water. A third, water. And so on until 17. Even when he got himself a letter from Cynthia Douglas admitting his mistake, the result was a slam of the door, he was not even granted a hearing. “They would read the papers and just say no, they saw that he didn’t have a lawyer and they ignored him, when basically we have used the same evidence that he had,” explains his lawyer, Tricia Rojo Bushnell. He also wrote letters, dozens of them, to organizations.
The fight to get free, unsuccessful as it is, is what kept Kevin alive in a prison in which he saw many killed around him. He longs for life not lived, which could have been until the moment it was interrupted on the morning of April 26, 1978. “I didn’t have much training then, but I wanted to enter the Army and earn a living, I wanted to be a father to my daughter, I was very young, but that girl was not a mistake and I wanted to do well with her ”, she says. The memory clothed him sometimes. He remembered his early childhood, before his parents’ separation; he saw himself helping his uncle with carpentry work, watching the fabulous baseball of Amos Otis, star of the Kansas City Royals; The face of his mother…
She, Rosetta Thornton, a cook and cleaner, died on August 28, aged 84. By then, the prosecution had already requested the exoneration of Strickland and his release was a matter of time. The hearing was scheduled for August 3, the day before his funeral, but the court postponed it and he was unable to attend. The first place Strickland visited upon his release from prison, on November 23, was his grave. The liberation took place a few days after a New York court admitted the innocence, half a century later, of two convicted of the murder of Malcolm X. The number of exonerations has multiplied in recent years, on the one hand, due to to the advance in DNA tests and genetic databases, which have served to reopen cases. On the other, thanks to a greater awareness of the injustices of the system. Many prosecutors have opened “integrity” units that precisely seek to repair errors. Last year alone there were 129, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Strickland is not entitled to any compensation because Missouri law states that only those exonerated on the basis of a DNA test can benefit from it. Even so, in one of those extremes of the American reality, where the harshness of the system coexists with a civil society with an unusual capacity when it comes to mobilizing for a stranger, in just over a week they have received donations worth 1 , 6 million dollars.
Solidarity overwhelms him, puzzles him, but fails to make him lower his guard. “If one of you were to pass out right here in this room now, I’d get out of here without laying my hand on you. I would be afraid of being blamed for something ”. Have you not regained your trust in people? “Nerd…”.
When asked what he wants to do for the rest of his life, he responds for a moment that he would like to travel: “I don’t know, Australia comes to mind for some reason. Also Brazil. Or Africa, I would like to go there, get out of a truck, touch a rhinoceros and run back to the car to see if I win. ” Then he realizes that he has never flown and wants to avoid taking airplanes. “Dying in an accident after all this …”, he says without irony. If he wants to see his children (that baby and another he had had before), regain his relationship with his siblings, that the spinal ailment that does not allow him to stand up for more than three or four minutes in a row allows him to live a little . He does not have, he assures, energy for hatred, for anger, just to live what he has left.
With the money he looks for a house outside the city. “I don’t want any neighbor within a mile, I don’t need anybody, really.” Watching a little sports on TV (“You know, Michael Jordan started his career when he was inside and retired before I came out,” he says), having dogs, sleeping without fear. That all sounds good. Let the nightmares end. He recalls a very recent one: “We had to go to court because they were supposed to release me and I was handcuffed from behind, but suddenly everything is a ghost town, and there is no one in court, I am waiting for the judge and there is no one even to take off the handcuffs, I am alone and I cannot get out ”.