“I was nine years old when Kevin Strickland was convicted of killing three people in Kansas City, Missouri,” says Jean Peters Baker, elected prosecutor for Jackson County, Missouri. “Recently, I delivered to him a stack of welcome home cards made by a Kansas City class of first graders. And I’m helping him restore his voting rights.”
In a rare turn of events, two defense attorneys and a prosecuting attorney worked together to correct Strickland’s wrongful conviction. After decades of asking for exoneration and serving 43 years of his life sentence, Strickland regained his freedom on November 23, 2021, when his conviction was overturned. His case is the longest confirmed wrongful-conviction case in Missouri’s history.
Tricia Rojo Bushnell, an appellate attorney specializing in wrongful conviction and death penalty cases, met Strickland in 2018 and began representing him. She is the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to the investigation, litigation and exoneration of wrongfully convicted people in Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska.
In 2019, Bushnell approached trial lawyer Robert J. Hoffman of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner and asked him to consider joining her on the case. He agreed and worked with Bushnell and her team on a petition for writ of habeas corpus. “I’m very proud of the tremendous support from my firm for my role in this case,” Hoffman says. “They gave me the freedom to pursue a non-paying endeavor that required a substantial investment of time.”
Hoffman and Bushnell brought the case to Baker’s office, and her team got involved. Hoffman served as lead attorney at the hearing on the petition. “I commend Jean and her team for the way they approached the case,” he says. “They were open to listening to us, and they heard us. When they engaged, they saw the evidence the same way we did. They acted and took a really courageous act.”
On August 28, 2021, the Missouri Legislature passed a new law that provided the tool the prosecutor needed to carry out the oath and responsibilities of the office: an actual legal pathway and tool for exoneration. This law gives Baker and other local prosecutors the authority to ask judges to exonerate prisoners they believe are innocent. In a few weeks, Strickland was released from prison.
Baker is the first to say that her team of “legal geniuses” — Kate E. Brubacher, Terrence M. Messonnier and Edward D. ‘Chip’ Robertson Jr. — were instrumental in this victory for Strickland. “This was the hardest job I’ll ever have,” Baker says. “And probably the best job I’ll ever have.”
“There is an emotional burden when dealing with a case where an innocent person’s life and freedom are at stake,” Hoffman says. “I’ve never encountered this in my regular civil practice. This is the most rewarding case of my career. The victory had a different level of gratification for me.”
“I’m proud of the fact that everyone came together on this case with a shared communal focus and the vision for justice,” Bushnell says. “It took so many people to make it happen, and that says something really extraordinary about our legal system. All of us are responsible for justice.”