Updated: Aug 31, 2021
BY CAMERON GERBER ON AUGUST 30, 2021
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Congresswoman Cori Bush joined a coalition of advocacy groups and exonerees to push for the release of Kevin Strickland, Lamar Johnson, and others the group said were wrongly convicted.
“We’re talking about people where it’s been publicly made known that they are innocent by prosecutors and our attorney general and governor still say they will not allow them to be released from prison — that’s direct violence on our community, that is violence on their families,” Bush told The Missouri Times. “I can tweet things out and I can go on television, but it’s another thing to go out and show up for these families and communities so they see their legislators right in the midst of the protest.”
Bush joined the National Organization of Exonerees for a demonstration on the Capitol grounds, with speakers coming from as far as Michigan to share their own stories and advocate for freedom.
While few state lawmakers were available to speak, several, including Sens. Brian Williams, Steven Roberts, and Karla May, sent statements to be read to the crowd.
“Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson are innocent men who should have never been put behind bars in the first place. Every day they remain incarcerated is another day justice is denied,” May’s statement read. “We must act now to correct the wrongs of the past and free these innocent men and others like them throughout our state. I urge the attorney general to help ensure wrongfully convicted individuals find the freedom they so rightfully deserve.”
The coalition marched to the Missouri Supreme Court to deliver signed petitions advocating for the release of Strickland, Johnson, and others with similar stories, including Chris Dunn, who is serving a life sentence plus 90 years. Organizers said the petitions garnered more than 35,000 signatures.
Several speakers pointed to the massive bipartisan law enforcement and criminal justice reform bill that became law Saturday, which included a provision giving a prosecuting or circuit attorney the ability to file a motion to vacate or set aside a judgment if information arises to suggest an individual was wrongly convicted. It allows someone to file for an expungement after three years (down from seven years) for a felony offense and one year (down from three years) for a misdemeanor. If a person’s record has been expunged, any rights that had been stripped from the individual shall be restored, according to the bill.
Strickland was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for a 1978 triple homicide. The case largely hinged on testimony from a witness who named Strickland in the case but later recanted her testimony. Two other men who pleaded guilty to their involvement in the killings also said Strickland was innocent.
Strickland has received support from the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office in his petition for freedom, but the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the case earlier this summer. A bipartisan group of lawmakers advocated for a pardon earlier this year.
Johnson was convicted of murder in St. Louis in 1994, though his lawyers say witnesses in the case were paid for their testimony against him and that the perpetrator of the shooting was wearing a ski mask. His attorneys also said the witness was pressured by police and prosecutors.
Dunn was convicted of a 1990 murder, though two witnesses who pointed to him later took back their testimony and several alibi witnesses have reportedly come forward.