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Why Won’t the State of Missouri Release Innocent Men From Prison?

by Casey J. Bastian

There are not many people who can truly relate to the Kafkaesque experience of the three men currently stuck in the Missouri prisons. All three are factually innocent but have spent decades behind bars. Christopher Dunn, Kevin Strickland, and Lamar Johnson have each spent multiple decades in prison based on convictions for which the evidence has been proven to be false. Yet all three remain in prison without any idea if or how they might be released.

When Dunn was just 18, Ricco Rogers was murdered on a neighborhood porch. Dunn was convicted based on the testimony of two boys who later said they had been coerced by law enforcement to implicate Dunn. Last fall, Circuit Court Judge William E. Hickle issued a ruling that found, “This court does not believe that any jury would convict Christopher Dunn under these facts.” But this habeas corpus ruling will not set Dunn free.

Missouri Supreme Court precedent holds that “freestanding” claims of actual innocence is limited to prisoners on death row. As Dunn was not sentenced to death, he must linger in prison. “To hear him say I was innocent, but he can’t set me free because I’m not a death row inmate, I didn’t understand,” said Dunn. It does not seem like something anyone should understand.

In the cases of Johnson and Strickland, it is even more bizarre because the prosecutors themselves assert both men are innocent. Strickland is now 62 and has suffered multiple heart attacks, causing him to use a wheel chair. Strickland told a local ABC affiliate that, “I think I’ve been destroyed. I’ve been placed in an environment where I had to adapt to living with all sorts of confessed criminals. The way I see things now is not normal, I would think, for somebody in society.”

Kim Gardner is a St. Louis prosecutor. She became aware of Johnson’s case more than two years ago and has fought to have him released. Gardner describes the evidence of Johnson’s innocence as “overwhelming” and that information provided to his jury was “false and perjured.” Gardner says, “What we uncovered was devastating, not only to myself, but to the criminal justice system.”

The futures of Strickland and Johnson are in the hands of Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt. He insists that Strickland is guilty and says that Johnson has already exhausted all of his lawful opportunities to get out of prison. If Schmitt will not petition for their verdicts to be overturned, the only remaining chance seems to be a pardon from the governor. Pressure needs to be placed upon Governor Mike Parson to do the only right, and long overdue, thing: fully and immediately pardon Dunn, Strickland, and Johnson.

Writer’s note: Kevin Strickland was released on November 23, 2021, the first prisoner to be exonerated successfully under Missouri’s Senate Bill 53, which passed in July. With over 42 years behind bars in a 1978 triple murder case where he was falsely picked from a lineup, he was the longest-standing known wrongful conviction in the state. Advocates are hoping Strickland’s release will turn the tide on how the state deals with exonerations. Although under Missouri law he is not entitled to receive any financial compensation for the decades of his life lost due to his wrongful conviction, his lawyers from the Midwest Innocence Project launched a crowdfunding campaign that has thus far raised $1.6 million from more than 29,000 strangers.  

Source: reason.com, bbc.com, kansascity.com, gofundme.com

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