For men exonerated in Michigan, Kevin Strickland case is personal

For Kenneth Nixon and Marvin Cotton, Kevin Strickland’s push for exoneration and freedom is personal.

The two men were released within the last year after they were exonerated of murder in separate Michigan cases. Cotton spent 19 years in prison, while Nixon did nearly 16 years.

Over the weekend, they traveled to Missouri to show support for Kevin Strickland, who Jackson County prosecutors say is innocent in a 1978 triple murder in Kansas City. The men attended a brief hearing in the case Monday, sitting in the front row of pews.

Nixon described Strickland’s case, which he heard about from another Michigan exoneree, as “heartbreaking.”

“It’s painful to even think of four-plus decades of suffering for something that you didn’t do,” Nixon said. “The thought of him doing almost three times what I did — like, there’s times when my faith wavered, so I can only imagine how many times he has felt that way.”

At the hearing, Judge Ryan Horsman set Strickland’s evidentiary hearing — which will see Strickland’s lawyers and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office make opposing arguments — for Aug. 12 and 13. Following that hearing Horsman could free Strickland.

News broke earlier in the day that the attorney general’s office will argue that Strickland, 62, is guilty in the murders. He received a fair trial in 1979 and has “worked to evade responsibility” for the killings since then, the office contended.

More than 60 days ago, Strickland received rare support from Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who said her office had concluded Strickland, who was 18 when he was arrested, is “factually innocent” in the April 25, 1978, shooting at 6934 S. Benton Ave.

The Michigan exonerees, Nixon and Cotton, were in Missouri on behalf of a group of exonerees that recently started calling themselves the National Organizations of Exonerees. They wanted to gather information about Strickland’s case as well as that of Lamar Johnson, who St. Louis prosecutors say is innocent in a 1994 murder.

They, and others in the Michigan group of people freed after wrongful convictions, remain “shocked and appalled” by the situation in Missouri — Strickland and Johnson remain in prison though local prosecutors have deemed them innocent, Nixon said.

“It’s the government fighting the government,” he said of local prosecutors and the attorney general’s office. “The people that put him in there are the people that are saying we made a mistake.”

For Nixon and Cotton, conviction integrity units — in which prosecutors review potential wrongful convictions — were “monumental” in exonerating them. Nixon, who was released in February, was the 28th person exonerated since 2018 in Wayne County, where Detroit is located.

Strickland is the first prisoner deemed innocent by the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office’s conviction integrity unit.

In addition to Michigan, five other states have statewide conviction integrity units: Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

In Michigan, Nixon told The Star, the attorney general’s statewide conviction integrity unit typically works with local prosecutors to right past wrongs. There, he said, there is “no reason to rally against our government because they are doing the right thing.”

“We don’t typically have the conflict that you guys are seeing down there,” Nixon said. “We’re trying to understand, is it just politics or is there some genuine reason why there’s a conflict?”

Cotton said he and Nixon have lived what Strickland is going through. Missourians should be outraged, they said.

“It’s torture,” Cotton said of being innocent and behind bars.

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