Is Missouri Gov. Mike Parson innocent? You know, we’re just not sure

Kevin Strickland is pictured in an interview room at Western Missouri Correctional Center on Nov. 5, 2019. Strickland is serving a life sentence for a 1978 triple murder that he claims he did not commit. He says that when he has his first parole hearing, he probably will not be released because he refuses to accept responsibility for a crime that he did not commit. “It’s a matter of principle now,” he said. “My life is over. They took all my prime years.” He now uses a wheel chair because medical issues keep him from standing for more than a few minutes at a time. (James Wooldridge)

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is not so sure that Kevin Strickland is innocent. And you know, now that we’re sharing, we’re not so sure that our governor is innocent.

Is he innocent of deciding that facts be damned, he’s not letting some Black guy out of prison before he absolutely has to? There’s no evidence of that.

Is he innocent of the bias that the criminal justice system that he was part of as Polk County sheriff works just great, unless you’ve done something wrong? Or of pandering to the political base that he seems to believe doesn’t care if Strickland murdered three people or not?

We just have this nagging, Parsonesque feeling that Mike Parson might be guilty — for one thing, of unwillingness to look closely enough at Strickland’s case to know that he really is innocent. The other possibility is that he does know and won’t admit it.

A man innocent of mulishness would hurry to correct the awful wrong that he’s instead choosing to perpetuate. The key witness in Strickland’s murder 1979 trial recanted her testimony and apologized long ago, and the real killers confessed.

Every day that Kevin Strickland has spent in prison since May 10, when the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office announced that he did not commit the 1978 triple murder for which he’s been in prison ever since, is on Mike Parson’s conscience, or should be. Yet he appears troublingly untroubled by that responsibility.

First, Parson said that pardoning Strickland was not a priority. A wrongfully convicted Missourian has been sleeping on a cot in a cage since he was a teenager. So right, why would someone dividing his time between the Governor’s Mansion and his cattle farm in Bolivar worry about that?

Now he says he doesn’t know if Strickland is “innocent or not.”

“We’ve looked at that case on several occasions, as we follow the news, too,” he told KSHB News. But “I’m not convinced that I’m willing to put other people at risk” by freeing a 62-year-old man who uses a wheelchair.

He does not have a single shred of evidence to cite against Strickland, but there is a long and ignoble tradition of not caring to rectify an injustice no matter what the facts say.

After Lamonte McIntyre was free, officials whispered he wasn’t innocent

That’s exactly how officials in Kansas behaved even after Lamonte McIntyre was freed from prison, where he spent 23 years for a double murder he did not commit.

Approving compensation for McIntyre took far longer than it needed to because of foot-dragging by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who in July of 2018 received a letter signed by police officials in Kansas City, Kansas. They urged him not to sign off on funding to look into other wrongful convictions like McIntyre’s because his conviction maybe wasn’t so wrongful.

Mayor David Alvey also suggested even after McIntyre was finally freed that he might not be innocent — though there was nothing to back that up. When we asked Alvey about McIntyre, he only said on the record that he couldn’t talk about ongoing litigation, and that “I don’t think all the facts have come out.”

That was nonsense, just as it’s hooey that there’s any doubt about Strickland’s innocence.

Kelli Jones, Parson’s spokeswoman, said the governor believes “we must give great deference to the judicial process and a jury’s finding of guilt.” Juries only know what they’re told, and we now know that the narrative they were fed wasn’t accurate.

During her review of Strickland’s Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker went over the case with 20 homicide prosecutors. Then she apologized, on behalf of her office, and called for Strickland’s immediate exoneration and release. Nobody, in public or private life, likes to admit to and apologize for a wrong, and certainly not one of this magnitude. Yet she managed it.

“This is a profound error we must correct now,” she said.

“Now” has come and gone, with Parson unmoved and perhaps immovable.

Strickland could also be freed after an evidentiary hearing in DeKalb County, because that’s where he’s being held. That could happen as soon as next month.

Or, if he’s still in prison on Aug. 28, Baker hopes to file a motion asking a Jackson County judge to exonerate Strickland. That’s when a bill, if signed into law by Parson, would first allow local prosecutors to seek to free prisoners they have deemed innocent.

Parson said this week that he will “more than likely” sign that bill into law. He made no promises, though, and even suggested that Strickland’s guilt or innocence is unknowable. Which is both untrue and a further grave disservice to a man who has already been robbed of 43 years.

Above all, the governor doesn’t seem to want anyone to be able to say that he’s directly responsible for freeing Kevin Strickland. And so far, no one can say the governor is guilty of showing any compassion toward him, or any human decency.