KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Roland Strickland and Warren Thornton, the younger brothers of Kevin Strickland, said their brother's release from prison Tuesday after 43 years was long overdue.
"I get to actually give him a hug and not have a time limit placed on it," Roland Strickland said.
An untimed embrace is all Roland Strickland has longed for during the last 43 years since Kevin Strickland went to prison and was convicted for a triple murder he didn't commit. He was exonerated Tuesday and walked out of the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron later that day a free man.
"I'll never forget that time, that day, that month," Roland Strickland said, recalling when his brother went to jail shortly after the April 1978 homicides. "My birthday is in April. I had just turned 16, and you take my brother away for life. He wasn't even a man. He'll probably tell you he was, but I mean, age-wise, he was a boy. He was 18."
Locked away at 18 years old to await trial, Kevin Strickland missed out on more of his life than most people could imagine.
"He wasn't able to see his daughter, his son," Thornton said. "He never got to see any of my children. The way the world has changed, the simple things that we take for granted, he didn't have had any of those. Forty-three years of advancement he's missed out on."
The final insult came three months ago as Kevin Strickland missed the opportunity to say goodbye to his mother, whose dying wish was to see her son free. Instead, Rosetta Thornton died on Aug. 21 at the age of 85.
"She was a fighter, but right now she's crying — she's crying in joy, she's smiling at him, and it's not supposed to be like that," Roland Strickland said. "It's painful that she held on for so many years to see her son come home innocent like he said he was and she couldn't make it."
On the other hand, Kevin Strickland did make it to see his own freedom, something his brothers thought would never happen.
"If I had to say one way or the other, I didn't think this day was going to come," Roland Strickland said. "My faith is really strong. But in the belief that they would exonerate him? No, that just about faded away completely."
Nonetheless, through all the pain, what didn't fade away was the faith the Strickland family held onto during some of the darkest hours visiting Kevin Strickland behind bars.
"You know, it had to be whisper or a one-second embrace or they're telling you to break it up," Roland Strickland said. "I can remember times where I can maybe look at a guard in not such a nice way and Kevin would say, 'Let that go. I gotta live here. Let that go.'"
Now living at home with family, hoping to get back some measure of a life taken away at such a young age, a 43-year waking nightmare for the Strickland finally is over.
"I've always been dreaming, praying, hoping he would come home," Roland Strickland said. "It's finally come to an end. Thank God."
This story was originally published by Leslie DelasBour on Scripps station KSHB in Kansas City, Missouri.