Family members of several Missouri prisoners who claim they were wrongfully convicted rallied outside Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s Kansas City office on Monday afternoon, saying the office is fighting to uphold cases when there is strong evidence of a person’s innocence.
The group, led by the KC Freedom Project, held the demonstration outside the downtown Fletcher Daniels State Office Building. Participants shared testimonials, displayed homemade signs and yelled chants as they sought to place greater attention on courtroom practices that they contend are keeping innocent people imprisoned solely because of legal technicalities.
“We are sick and tired — and tired of being sick and tired — of the things that are Missouri Attorney General’s office has been doing,” said Latahra Smith with KC Freedom Project, a local organization that advocates for wrongful convictions to be overturned, adding: “Innocence in Missouri is not enough when it comes to our attorney general’s office. And it should be.”
A spokesman for Schmitt’s office declined to comment on the rally.
At issue is the attorney general’s office’s approach toward seeking to preserve convictions made under state law, a practice that well preceded Schmitt’s tenure. Some post-conviction attorneys and legal observers have criticized the office lately based on the decision to challenge innocence hearings in court made possible under a new Missouri law related to wrongful convictions.
One example is the case of Kevin Strickland. Strickland was freed last week by the order of a Missouri judge after Strickland won the rare support of the Jackson County prosecutor’s office in his innocence claim. Strickland was found to be “factually innocent” by the prosecutor’s office prior to evidentiary hearings held earlier this month.
Schmitt’s office fought Strickland’s release in court, contending he was guilty of the 1978 triple murder that landed him in prison for nearly 43 years. Activists on Monday claimed that is only one case where the attorney general’s office is standing in the way of innocent people being freed.
Among those coming out in support of Missouri prisoners was the sister of Christopher Dunn, who has long maintained innocence in the 1990 fatal shooting of a St. Louis teenager. Dunn was convicted of murder and has spent more than 25 years behind bars for the killing of 14-year-old Ricco Rogers.
Two years ago, a south central Missouri judge ruled that Dunn likely would not have been found guilty at trial based on new evidence. But the judge declined to exonerate Dunn, saying at the time that it was unclear under state law if innocence alone is enough to free prisoners.
Also present at the rally was Cliff Middleton, whose father Kenneth Middleton has spent the past 30 years in prison after he was convicted of murdering his wife in Blue Springs in 1990. The younger Middleton says his father’s continued incarceration is based on a flawed ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals that came after a Jackson County judge in 2006 ordered a new trial for his father.
Now, Cliff Middleton hopes the same Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office will use the same legal method that freed Strickland for his dad.
“It’s crazy,” said Cliff Middleton, who has long sought for his father to be exonerated. “People need to know that this can happen to them. This can happen. It does happen. And at this point right now it’s real simple. It’s a jurisdictional issue, let my father’s case be heard.”
The Star’s Luke Nozicka contributed to this report.