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story.lead_photo.caption Representatives from the National Organization of Exonerees stand together at the rally. The organization sponsored the event, along with several others. Photo by Ryan Pivoney

Criminal justice advocates came knocking Monday.

Stationed on the Capitol's south lawn across from the Missouri Supreme Court Building, roughly 150 people gathered for a rally to raise awareness for two high-profile criminal cases they say are innocent.

Kevin Strickland, of Kansas City, has been in prison for 43 years for a triple murder, a crime Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker argues Strickland didn't commit.

Lamar Johnson, of St. Louis, has been in prison for 26 years for an alleged drug dispute murder that St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner argues he didn't commit.

Both cases have gained national attention, but Gov. Mike Parson said they were not a priority for pardons and Attorney General Eric Schmitt has blocked legal attempts to overturn the convictions.

After a series of speeches, Monday's demonstrators marched petitions signed by more than 60,000 people around the country to the Attorney General's Office in the Supreme Court Building. After being stopped at the door, a small delegation was permitted to enter the building and leave the petitions.

Organizations such as the National Organization of Exonerees, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Organization for Black Struggle and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People led the rally, with representatives from each group making statements.

Kenneth Nixon, chairman of the National Organization of Exonerees, said he understands the sense of injustice faced by Strickland and Johnson as an individual that was once wrongly convicted.

"These guys are suffering from something that's beyond their control, and it's gotten to the point where politics have gotten involved, and we don't believe in that," Nixon said. "We want to make sure that we give them a voice."

Demonstrators said the Attorney General's Office has failed to pursue justice in every case, and that while the issue of wrongful convictions isn't new, it can't be passed to a new generation.

"We're going to get this done, and we're going to be a headlight for justice," Darryl Gray, a pastor with the Progressive National Baptist Convention, told the crowd.

Monday's crowd was bolstered by the words of several Missouri lawmakers and U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis.

"These men are victims of our failed criminal legal system," Bush said. "I called it failed. Where is the lie? A failed criminal legal system — a system that allows people to remain incarcerated for crimes that they have been proven innocent of, crimes that others have accepted guilt for."

Chris Nuelle, a spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office, said the attorney general had no comment on the rally.

Michelle Smith, rally organizer and racial justice coordinator of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the rally was intended to provide support for Strickland and Johnson, who might have new legal avenues after SBs 53 and 60 took effect Saturday.

On Saturday, the Jackson County Prosecutor filed a motion asking a judge to exonerate Strickland.

The motion is made possible by SBs 53 and 60, which allow a prosecuting or circuit attorney to file a motion to vacate or set aside judgment if they have information indicating an individual is innocent or convicted in error.

The law allows prosecutors to fix their mistakes, proponents claim.

"To think that in 2021 we're still having conversations about how prosecutors have the power to put people in prison, but they don't have the power to get them out," Nixon said. " This new law going into effect is huge, it's monumental."

According to the law, the circuit court in which the person was convicted has jurisdiction over the case and will decide the motion. The Missouri attorney general is also given notice and is permitted to appear, question witnesses and make arguments in the hearing.

In July, the Attorney General's Office argued in a motion Strickland is guilty of the three murders and was given a fair trial in 1979.

Federal prosecutors, the presiding judge of Jackson County and some members of the team that convicted Strickland have said they believe he is innocent.

In Johnson's case, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled against Gardner in March after the Attorney General's Office successfully argued she didn't have the authority to seek a new trial.

As a circuit attorney, Gardner would now have the authority to file the motion.

Smith said she wants to see the new legislation run its course without interference from the Attorney General's Office.

Bush implored the attorney general and the governor to act immediately to free Strickland and Johnson, and advocated for more comprehensive services for individuals released from prison.

"The continued inaction of our state government only serves to further deprive these men of their freedom and their family," Bush said.

Many speakers said the statewide elected officials should be voted out of office if nothing changes.

Demonstrators also recognized a third prisoner in Missouri they say is innocent.

Chris Dunn, of St. Louis, has been in prison for 31 years for a murder charge he says he didn't commit. Both witnesses in his case have recanted their statements.

Delores Dunn, Chris's sister, said prosecutors relied on witness testimony to convict Chris Dunn.

Smith said she would be working on legal informant reforms with Sen. Brian Williams, D-St. Louis County, Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, and Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-O'Fallon, in the next legislative session.

"Getting one or two men out is excellent and we need to keep pushing that, but we need systemic change," Smith said.

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