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

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KCTV) – Imagine being jailed for a crime you didn’t commit. It happens. And in Missouri, even if information proves innocence, those convicted can remain in jail. A bill, sponsored by State Senator John Rizzo, would change that.

A Senate committee today heard testimony about SB 1201. It would give Missouri judges the power to overturn and quash questionable convictions, meaning innocent prisoners would be set free.

Right now, state law is making it difficult. In fact, Missouri is one of the toughest states to liberate for those who are wrongfully convicted.

On Monday, state senators heard from several people in favor of SB 1201, including a retired chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court. Michael Wolff told the committee that the justice system is a nightmare, where proving your innocence is not 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 released last November after serving more than 40 years for a crime the courts now agree he did not commit. Bushnell reminded the senators that Strickland’s lawyers had filed several habeas petitions, but they had not been heard. Strickland was only released after Jackson County District Attorney Jean Peters Baker returned his case to court.

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“We actually filed directly with 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 on death row, and it was not accepted,” Bushnell said. “Currently, Missouri is the only state in the United States that makes this distinction that 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 commit.(KCTV5 staff)

Chris Dunn is an example. The case against him has largely collapsed. Teenagers from rival gangs who had testified against him in court are now admitting to lying. Dunn had an alibi for the night he was murdered. There was no physical evidence linking him to the murder. He has been waiting 32 years to be released.

“You mean that because I’m not on death row, I don’t qualify to regain my freedom that you wrongly took from me?” asks Dunn.

But, some say, it’s not just those wrongfully convicted who suffer under current laws.

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

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She told the committee, “I will bare my soul to you now and tell you that the guilt of not being able to set him free. I almost killed myself that year because I felt responsible for where he was. In this process, I have been victimized again and again.

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

If SB 1201 passes, it would give wrongfully convicted people another avenue. Proponents 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 set that person free.

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Norman D. Briggs