By Jean Peters Baker
If you spend any time with Kevin Strickland, who survived 44 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.