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Innocence doesn’t mean freedom for Missouri inmates, senate bill could help change that

SB 1201 would empower Missouri judges to overturn and set aside questionable convictions, meaning innocent prisoners would be freed.
Published: Apr. 4, 2022 at 5:20 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 4, 2022 at 6:42 PM CDT
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KCTV)--Imagine being imprisoned for a crime you did not commit. It happens. And in Missouri, even if information comes to light that proves innocence, those convicted may remain in jail. A bill, sponsored by State Senator John Rizzo would change that.

A senate committee heard testimony today on SB 1201. It would empower Missouri judges to overturn and set aside questionable convictions, meaning innocent prisoners would be freed.

Right now, state law makes it difficult. In fact, Missouri is one of the toughest states for those who are wrongly convicted to be freed.

On Monday, state senators heard from several people in support of SB 1201. Including a retired Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice. Michael Wolff told the committee that the justice system is a nightmare, where proving your innocence isn’t enough unless you are sentenced to death.

Tricia Rojo Bushnell, the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project also testified. Bushnell represented Kevin Strickland, who was freed last November after serving more than 40 years for a crime courts now agree he did not commit. Bushnell reminded the senators that Strickland’s attorneys filed several habeas petitions, but they were not heard. Strickland was freed only after Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker took his case back to court.

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“We actually filed directly to the Missouri Supreme Court and asked them to take the case to resolve this issue of whether or not innocence is a claim if you’re not sentenced to death, and that was not accepted,” said Bushnell. “Currently, Missouri is the only state in the United States that makes this distinction that says innocence can be a claim, but only in capital cases.”

Kevin Strickland spent 43 years in prison for a Kansas City triple murder he swears he didn’t do.
Kevin Strickland spent 43 years in prison for a Kansas City triple murder he swears he didn’t do.(KCTV5 staff)

Chris Dunn is one example of that. The case against him has largely fallen apart. Teenagers from rival gangs who had testified against him in court now admit they lied. Dunn had an alibi for the night of his murder. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the murder. He’s been waiting 32 years to be freed.

“You mean to tell me because I’m not on death row, I don’t meet the requirements to regain my liberty back that you wrongfully took from me?” questions Dunn.

But, some say, it’s not only those wrongly convicted who suffer under the current laws.

During testimony today, senators heard from a woman who help convict a man for the murder of her mother, JoAnn Tate. Melissa was seven years old when she testified against Rodney Lincoln. She later recanted her testimony and believes another man is responsible for her mother’s murder. Lincoln’s sentence was commuted in 2018, but he was not exonerated.

Kevin Strickland: ‘I’m not angry, I’m disgusted’

She told the committee, “I’m going to bare my soul to you right now and tell you that the guilt over not being able to free him. I almost took my life that year because I felt responsible for where he was. In this process, I was victimized again and again.”

“Wrongful convictions hurt victims,” said Melissa. “My family never received justice.”

If SB 1201 passes, it would give those wrongfully convicted another avenue. Supporters say it would simply put Missouri with the rest of the country—if someone is innocent and can prove it in court, a judge can free that person.

For more KCTV5 investigative stories, click here.