After leaving a Missouri prison as a free man for the first time in nearly 43 years, Kevin Strickland paid his first visit to the graveyard where his mother was buried only 11 weeks ago.
Strickland was released from the state facility in Cameron on Tuesday following the order of a judge exonerating him of a 1978 triple murder that he has always sworn he did not commit. In an interview with CNN on Wednesday morning, Strickland said his mother's grave was his first stop.
His mother, Rosetta Savannah Thornton, died on Aug. 21, a few short months after Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced efforts by her office to have Strickland freed under a new Missouri law. Strickland was not allowed a temporary release for her funeral service in September.
Over recent years, Strickland said during the interview, he was unable to spend time with his mother because of her declining health. She suffered from dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
When he finally saw her final resting place, he "revisited those tears that I did when they told me I was guilty of a crime I didn't commit."
"A lot of stuff came out. I talked to her for a minute. I believe she could feel me, hear me. I do," Strickland said as he glanced upward during the interview.
The release of Strickland has caught international attention as he is among the longest serving wrongfully convicted prisoners in U.S. history. His case was profiled in a September 2020 investigation by The Star, which interviewed more than two dozen people, including two men who admitted guilt and swore Strickland was not with them and two other accomplices during the killings.
The Star also reported that the lone eyewitness to the murders, whose testimony was paramount in the case against Strickland, told relatives she wanted to recant.
Jackson County prosecutors began reviewing Strickland's conviction in November 2020 after speaking with his lawyers and reviewing The Star's investigation. Following a months-long review of the case, Baker's office in May announced that Strickland is "factually innocent" in the April 25, 1978, triple murder at 6934 S. Benton Avenue in Kansas City and should be freed immediately.
For Strickland, leaving prison marked other trials that lay ahead as he is ineligible under state law to receive compensation for his wrongful conviction. But financial support has poured in from thousands of people donating to a fundraiser in his name. A GoFundMe had generated nearly $650,000 by Wednesday night.
In the time ahead, Strickland told CNN on Wednesday that he plans to do some of the things he has never had the chance to experience given the fact that he has remained incarcerated since he was a teenager. He hopes to someday soon see the ocean, he said.
"At 62, I believe I can surf," Stickland said, cracking a smile as he sat in his wheelchair. "If they can get me out of this chair."
The Star's Luke Nozicka contributed to this report.