Jackson County Prosecutor's Office Blog

Sep 01

A Deeper Look Into Our Outcomes in Prosecuting Homicides

Posted on September 1, 2023 at 12:53 PM by Jean Peters Baker

If you get caught for a homicide in Jackson County, you should expect that you will be charged and convicted. This reality is only possible with the partnership of law enforcement. The new data I am presenting today also shows the vast majority of homicide cases result not only in convictions, but also in heavy sentences, although we strictly evaluate all cases under applicable laws and strive for a just outcome. 

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Aug 30

A Community Update on Kevin Strickland

Posted on August 30, 2023 at 4:28 PM by Jean Peters Baker

By Jean Peters Baker

If you spend any time with Kevin Strickland, who survived Kevin44 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, you see what such long confinement cost him.

Strickland gathered at an area restaurant in June with a small group of very close friends. They were there to celebrate his birthday. And, of course, anyone attending would anticipate exactly what happened next. They began to sing to him “Happy Birthday.”

Kevin didn’t expect it. He stood at the head of a long table. Others sat or stood nearby. By the song’s closing, Kevin was shaking his head and rubbing his hands over his eyes. He began to cry.  Knowing Kevin is not one for public displays of attention, he gathered his composure quickly. His emotions, he explained, just bubbled up because he had never had this experience, a room full of people, happy to be with him, singing a song to him. Then, he did what he often does: He showed his gratitude. He genuinely thanked all attending just for honoring him with their presence. He thanked the cooks and those who served the food – though he made the cheesecake for the occasion. And as usual, he expressed his gratefulness.

That moment struck me as so true of Kevin. He faces lots of obstacles because of his four decades in prison. But he leans into those obstacles. At times, he can do that with the exuberance of a young man discovering freedom for the first time. And at other times he may appear like a man who has been struck down every time he has tried to get up. But, in the end, the optimist in Kevin wins. I have watched him fight off the sting of pessimism that would consume another. He wills himself to keep trying. As he recounts a hurdle that he is facing, a hurdle that he knows is not in front of others, he finds a way to smile and shake his head – as if to say – this is just the path I am on and I will find my way. He has faced so much worse during his years of incarceration in a dangerous and violent place filled with people who justly deserved and needed to be there, in Missouri’s prisons. I like to call Kevin the pessimistic optimist.

 I see Kevin as a man struck by circumstances. A horribly disturbing crime occurred in our community, three lives were taken by gunfire and a fourth was injured. Within about a year, that fourth witness realized she made an awful mistake in identifying the wrong person. Her mistake was understandable to those who studied the evidence. The witness had wounds that still bled from being shot herself, her best friend, murdered while tied to her own wrist by the actual killers and her statements taken immediately in the aftermath of this awful trauma. She tried to correct her error until her last days on this earth, but no one would listen. Instead, the system was protected itself. It was a perfect storm that persisted and persisted and persisted. And if some attorneys in the system, who took an oath to seek justice, had their way, he would still be incarcerated despite the evidence.

 I have often wondered how some can overcome an injustice without bitterness and callousness, while others become mired in it, embracing cynicism and showing an animosity against all who harmed them. Kevin falls in the former category. He demonstrates a kind of grace for those who harmed him, though undeserved, yet needed for his own humanity. He is much like the multitude of crime victims that I have encountered over the past 26 years in prosecution. While some victims understandably cannot find forgiveness for the harm done to them, others do. It is miraculous to see these victims live their life without bitterness after crime has struck, though they continue to live with a profound injury or broken heart.

 Though bitterness is not an emotion Kevin embraces, he still struggles with daily hurdles. As he makes his way in this world, he has an appreciation of the simple things in life in a way that others do not even know to acknowledge. For instance, he likes simple food that he prepares from his modest kitchen. He enjoys fishing and driving and just being alive. He has remarked about sleeping in a bed that is not attached to a wall as a great joy. While I find myself a grateful person, I have never been grateful for such simple things. Being around Kevin reminds me to find gratitude and to express my gratitude. Oh, and he loves baseball, specifically, the Royals. Every game, even a losing game, is a joy for Kevin.

 Kevin has missed other things that I overlook, like working. The fact that Kevin missed his working years pains him greatly. Kevin wants to work, no matter what that job may be. He wants the experience of an honest day’s work. His opportunity to work is limited. His medical care is not my information to share, but he has had multiple surgeries and rehabilitations since his release. That has been a steep climb for him that he is still trying his best to manage. Though he is pained by that fact that he lost so many years of earning a living, I do not detect a resentment, but rather, a longing for what he missed.

 Kevin was freed less than 2 years ago from prison by a judge, after a long, contentious hearing where this office fought to free him based on the evidence and our oath to seek justice. It’s remarkable to me how many simple, but daunting obstacles he faces. He left the world in the late 1970s, and suddenly he returned to it in late 2021.

 He was incarcerated before cell phones. Or cordless phones. Phones back then were things with chords. In the late 1970s, home phones had a range of about 3 three feet unless your family had splurged for one of those extended curled cords that gave you about 15 feet. Cars still had carburetors and TV was free to anyone with rabbit ears. And the Royals were good nearly every year. But the Chiefs were not. No one had heard of Sporting because soccer hardly existed in the Midwest.  And women earned about 60 percent the rate of men for comparable work. The world was so different and continues to change.

Kevin was “freed” to a foreign and changed landscape. America is barely the same place as it was when Kevin went into prison for a crime he did not commit. Albeit challenging and difficult, Kevin has embraced his newfound freedom to live a quiet and modest lifestyle. Today, Kevin is very frugal, unassuming, and generally content despite all the hurdles he continues to encounter.

Those hurdles include a vocal minority who continue to assume he is guilty of these crimes, despite a finding by lawyers in the community who studied his case. After gathering all the evidence, an impartial Judge heard the case, including the pitiful presentation made by the Attorney General to keep him incarcerated. The case was presented in a public courtroom and a judge found him to be innocent (rather than the evidence was just impaired). Yet, some still won’t be convinced. Recent years of culture wars have taught us that a minority is willing to have a strong opinion about a topic without the facts or understanding of the issues – and yell it loudly in echo chambers. Kevin will continue to encounter this very small vocal minority for whatever vested purpose they have for him to be guilty. Still, if Kevin could survive serving 44 years for a crime committed by others, then he can survive nonsense opinions.

 When I’ve asked him about those tough breaks he’s endured or the negative reactions of some to his release, Kevin does what you’d expect. He doesn’t engage in it. He’s not angry. He expresses no bitterness. “What else am I to do, Jean?” he asks with a soft smile. He already knows what he must do. He moves forward without anger, never looking behind. A perspective more of us should endorse.

Jun 30

The Homicide Ticker: Some good news amid the grim reality of violence

Posted on June 30, 2023 at 12:29 PM by Jean Peters Baker

By Jean Peters Baker

Prosecutor’s offices have long been known as a black box for information. To combat that, my office launched in 2021 a set of dashboards to show our work. Today, we are attempting to shine a brighter light on our work with the unveiling of a new feature on our website. Our goal is to better inform the public of the grim and increasing toll of violence in Kansas City. Across the top of the website www.jacksoncountyprosecutor.com a Homicide Ticker or banner will detail the status of the violence.

This banner will show:

  •       The number of homicides that have occurred in 2023 in my jurisdiction, Kansas City within Jackson County, along with other jurisdictions in the county.
  •       How many 2023 homicide cases have been referred to our office from the police departments within Jackson County for criminal charges.
  •        How many of those cases have been filed and charged.

Today’s banner shows 88 homicides in Kansas City within Jackson County. Of those 88, 38.6% or 34 have been referred to our office for charges by KCPD, and criminal charges have been filed by my office in 82.4% or 28 of those case.

This data will be updated weekly. A link will be provided to our office’s Violence Dashboard, which provides more detail, including maps, about homicides and non-fatal shootings in Kansas City. We will soon add information on eastern Jackson communities . Here is a link to that Violence Dashboard: https://jacksoncomo.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/a3a7f7d4aa1c45a3b658dd2a4ecb582b.

It is important to make this information easily available and easy to understand. This is especially true when violence spikes. The citizens of Kansas City will want to know how we are responding to this violence. I want to show them we are doing our jobs.

I am also proud to highlight that my office in 2023 – a particularly difficult year -- is charging a higher percentage of homicide cases. Of the 34 homicide cases referred to our office by KCPD for charges so far[ in 2023, 28 or 82.4 percent have been charged. (Clearance and prosecution data from our Eastern Jackson County jurisdictions will be substantially higher, however, we do not believe it is fair to compare suburban with urban jurisdictions). This data is updated as of June 25, 2023, just following the frightening multi-casualty event at 57th and Prospect Avenue. It should be noted that this database may slightly undercount homicides because persons initially listed as an assault victim and later die of their injuries are counted for a time as a non-fatal shooting victim until the data is updated. 

This 82.4 percent filing rate is high, but it is not unexpected. Over the last seven years, 2017-2023, our office has filed on average 71 percent of homicides sent to us by KCPD. Such high filing rates cannot be achieved without a partner. KCPD detectives deserve much credit. It should be noted that homicide cases are reviewed in a room full of seasoned prosecutors and detectives who investigated them. Even when consensus is not reached on filing, we do not stop working. Professionals are taught to manage disagreement without being disagreeable while finding ways to gather additional evidence so that a chance of justice can be sought.

There are some who may proclaim that 82.4 percent or 71 percent is too little. Why not charge every homicide presented to our office by a KCPD detective?

As a seasoned prosecutor, I know that 100 percent is the wrong goal and a dangerous one. First, some homicides today are lawful in Missouri. At times, the shooter is protected from prosecution under Missouri’s self-defense laws, which have been greatly broadened in recent years. I have frequently warned of the dangers of excessively broadening these laws, but in our political climate, those warnings were not heeded. And though I disagree with the extent of self-defense laws in Missouri, I am bound as a judicial officer to follow them.

We are confronted in nearly every case with a grim fact –nearly everyone today is armed. That is a significant change from when I started this job. More firearms came with the repeal of our Carry and Conceal Law. The loss of that law has proven difficult for police to address violence before the harm has occurred. At times it seems like the cards are stacked against detectives and prosecutors. But prosecutors in this office have adapted and they are very skilled in their trial work. We have devised a training program for prosecutors on how to manage the self-defense jury instruction and we send prosecutors to the scene of each homicide so they can begin to work the case immediately. Sadly, we have become skilled because we receive more experience than any other prosecutor in the region.

I have another, shorter answer why seeking a 100 percent file rate is the wrong goal: Kevin Strickland.

Every conviction must be fair and just and supported by credible and admissible evidence. And it must be certain. Aiming for 100 percent is not the goal of a “minister of justice.” Charges should come when the evidence demonstrates proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That is our criminal justice system’s highest standard, and it means no reasonable shred of doubt exists that the defendant may be innocent.

We do not file criminal charges when we believe the evidence can only establish a lower level of proof: Probable Cause. At that lower level, the evidence is just enough to support law enforcement's suspicion of a crime. But more importantly, filing under the low threshold of probable cause would have catastrophic outcomes. Even when the prosecutor can demonstrate probable cause to 12 jurors and the jurors seek to convict, they are duty bound to acquit by law. And acquittals bar us from trying that person again for that homicide even when new evidence comes to light.

Pursuing justice is not for the faint of heart. We won’t receive convictions on every case that we file, but our conviction rate is also high and dismissals are rare.

Put more simply, filing cases at probable cause is not ethical and not a winning strategy. Cases do not get better with time, especially when the evidence is too thin to start.

Dive into this data. I hope you come away with a more robust understanding of how well the justice system in Jackson County is doing. I will be posting a 2019 homicide analysis later today and soon I will update with more recent data on our outcomes. Here’s how I’d summarize what you will find from studying seven years of data you can find in our Violence Dashboard: 

  •         Slightly more than half the time, police detectives in KCPD have enough evidence to send a homicide case to my office for a prosecutor to review for charges. 
  •         Nearly eight in 10 of those cases is charged.

That’s a strong message: If you get caught for a homicide in KC, you’re very likely to be charged and convicted.

A final point: Don’t expect a light sentence. Here are a few sentences just from the past three months:

Vontez Howard, 26, was sentenced this month to 60 years in prison for a double murder conviction.

Gerald R. Robinson II, 24, was sentenced this month to 29 years in prison for a murder conviction.

And 47-year-old Victor Sykes will finish his life in prison following his murder convictions in March. He was sentenced to life without parole.