No pardon for Kevin Strickland, whose continued incarceration is a national shame

Kevin Strickland is still in prison, and Missouri’s shame grows.

Friday, Gov. Mike Parson’s office released the names of 18 people he pardoned earlier in the week. They appear to be low-level, nonviolent offenders: an underage beverage purchase, a DWI, illegal hunting.

Strickland’s name was not on the list. He remains behind bars, though prosecutors have said he’s innocent of the murder charges that sent him to the penitentiary more than 40 years ago.

Parson offered no immediate explanation for his decision to leave Strickland off the list, probably because it is inexplicable.

To review: Strickland, who is Black, was convicted as a teenager in the murders of three people in Kansas City. He was found guilty by an all-white jury, largely on the basis of testimony from one woman.

That witness, Cynthia Douglas, long ago recanted that testimony. Two other men convicted in the case have confessed and said Strickland was not involved. He was home watching television with his brother and talking on the phone with his girlfriend, but their testimony was ignored.

In May, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said she had determined Strickland is innocent of the crime that took his freedom. More than a dozen state lawmakers signed a letter asking Parson to grant Strickland’s request for clemency.

No compensation for wrongfully imprisoned

Virtually everyone connected with the case, then and now, thinks the inmate should not be in custody.

Yet Strickland remains behind bars.

Parson’s stubborn reluctance to provide Strickland with the justice he deserves has drawn the attention of the world, and has mystified much of it. In an interview with KSHB-TV in June, the governor said he couldn’t tell if Strickland was innocent.

“I am not convinced that I’m willing to put other people at risk if you’re not right,” he said.

Strickland is a risk to no one. His life has been discarded by a system apparently uninterested in his actual innocence. Given a chance to show some grace to a man whose life has been stolen by Missouri, Parson has instead played to his base.

This year, the Missouri legislature passed a bill allowing prosecutors to seek release of a prisoner by asking a judge. We expect Parson to sign that bill, and Baker to seek Strickland’s release later this year.

We expect a judge to approve it, too.

But Missouri has some soul-searching ahead. It isn’t enough to say mistakes are made, and cases like Strickland’s are unavoidable. The state can’t rob a man of his life and then say oops.

Who pays a penalty if Strickland is exonerated? No one. Missouri will apparently not compensate Strickland for his four decades in prison. That means taxpayers are off the hook for the state’s denial of the inmate’s civil rights.

There are simply too many holes in the criminal justice system. It is simply too hard for prisoners to claim actual innocence once in custody. Too often, the innocent remain imprisoned while the guilty go free.

Lawyers have worked for years to obtain freedom for Kevin Strickland. The Kansas City Star helped bring his case to the public’s attention. Now his story has circulated across the nation, prompting outrage and confusion.

Parson had a chance — and still has a chance — to address that outrage and set Strickland free. Instead, this Independence Day, he’ll be celebrating while denying Strickland his independence. If you see him out and about — in Branson, maybe, where he was on Friday — ask him how that’s OK.

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