An online fundraiser for a Missouri man wrongly convicted in a 1978 triple slaying has reached $1.1 million — and continues to grow by the minute Friday.
The success of the financial effort — which was launched in June by the Midwest Innocence Project with a much more financially modest goal — has given Kevin Strickland a Thanksgiving to remember.
“Thank you for all your support!” the fundraiser read as the 62-year-old was released Tuesday from the Western Missouri Detention Center after a judge granted a prosecutor’s motion to free him. “All funds go directly to Mr. Strickland, who the state of Missouri won’t provide a dime to for the 43 years they stole from him.”
Prosecutors said in May that Strickland — who was acquitted in his first 1979 trial, but got convicted of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder two months later — should be freed since two men who pleaded guilty in the April 1978 slayings said he wasn’t with them at the time.
Authorities started looking into the case after a report by the Kansas City Star. The review led to prosecutors calling for Strickland’s immediate release since his conviction relied heavily on testimony of a now-deceased witness who tried to recant her mistaken identification prior to her 2015 death.
Strickland’s path to freedom was stymied by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who declined to grant his clemency request despite prosecutors insisting he was “factually innocent,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt also maintained Strickland was guilty and fought to keep him locked up for a crime he insisted he never committed, the newspaper reported.
But despite being cleared of the triple slaying, Strickland is ineligible to receive compensation through Missouri’s compensation law for the wrongfully convicted since it requires DNA evidence, according to the Midwest Innocence Project.
“When Kevin Strickland first went to prison in 1979, gas was 86 cents a gallon, Jimmy Carter was still president, and the first Star Trek movie had just made its debut,” a website about his case reads. “What’s remained unchanged, though, is Kevin’s actual innocence.”
The fundraiser’s prior goal was a mere $7,500 — or $175 for each of the 43 years Strickland spent locked up. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker praised a judge’s Tuesday ruling setting aside his conviction and dismissing all the criminal charges.
“To say we’re extremely pleased and grateful is an understatement,” Peters said in a statement. “This brings justice — finally — to a man who has tragically suffered so, so greatly as a result of this wrongful conviction.”
Strickland had been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for 50 years. He spoke to news outlets while in a wheelchair as he exited prison Tuesday, CNN reported.
“Still in disbelief,” Strickland said. “I didn’t think this day would come.”
Strickland, who learned of his impending release while watching a soap opera behind bars, went directly to his mother’s grave upon being freed.
“To know my mother was underneath that dirt and I hadn’t gotten a chance to visit her in the last years … I revisited those tears that I did when they told me I was guilty of a crime I didn’t commit,” Strickland told CNN Wednesday.
Some of Strickland’s supporters, meanwhile, said they were sorry that the justice system had been “rigged” against him.
“I commend the DA to realize the mistake made and give you the freedom that should have never been taken away from you to start with,” one fundraiser donor wrote. “But I learned in life the biggest gift is the ability to forgive and I am sure you will find that happiness by trying to forgive.”
The average time spent in prison for people who are later criminally cleared is just under nine years, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. At more than 43 years, Strickland ranks among one of the longest-serving former inmates in the nation, data shows.