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‘Right thing to do’: KC doctor, business owner donates $10,000 to Kevin Strickland

·3 min read

Over the past few days, John Billharz and his wife Cameo thought about how they could make the most impact to help Kevin Strickland.

Billharz is the president of Redwood Pediatrics, which he started with his wife in 2017 in Kansas City. He found out about Strickland, who was exonerated last week in a 1978 triple murder, from watching and reading news coverage.

But he also learned that Strickland, 62, would not receive any money from the state that wrongfully imprisoned him for more than 42 years.

So Billharz and his wife donated $10,000 to the GoFundMe set up by the Midwest Innocence Project to help Strickland pay for basic necessities and a place to live. The $10,000 is the most anyone has donated. The fundraiser has now generated more than $1.4 million.

“He can’t get that time back, but you can help take care of somebody for the time they have left,” Billharz, 42, said in a phone interview Saturday. “As a member of the community, both personally and as a business owner, it was an easy decision to make. It was the right thing to do.”

Billharz was born in 1979, which is the year Strickland was convicted and sentenced to prison on one count of capital murder and two counts of second-degree murder.

He thought of all he has done during his life — graduating medical school, getting married, having four children and starting a business — while Strickland suffered one of the longest wrongful convictions in U.S. history.

“I couldn’t imagine the type of loss that he has had,” Billharz said.

When Strickland walked out of the Western Missouri Correctional Center on Tuesday, he was not eligible for any money from Missouri for his wrongful conviction or even most services offered to parolees when they are released.

Missouri’s compensation law is narrow and only allows payments to innocent people exonerated through a specific DNA testing statute. Strickland was not exonerated through DNA testing.

Strickland’s attorney’s set up the GoFundMe fundraiser in June. At the time of his release, the fundraiser had raised about $37,000. But in the days since, the donation amount has ballooned to over $1.43 million.

The fundraiser’s goal has changed several times as donations have increased.

On Wednesday afternoon, the fundraiser’s goal of $430,000 was surpassed. By Thursday night, more than $1 million had been raised.

On Friday, the fundraiser’s goal was adjusted to $1.2 million. It surpassed that goal right before Strickland attended the lighting of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree at Crown Center.

Over 25,300 people have donated.

“It’s clear that there’s an injustice here and people like doing the right thing,” Billharz said. “It’s proof that there are lots of people who want to do the right thing.”

Billharz said he would like to offer a challenge to other businesses, not just in Kansas City but across the country, to match or surpass his donation.

“There’s a lot of big businesses, medium-sized businesses in our community that could ensure that he doesn’t have to fight and struggle anymore than he already has,” Billharz said. “I think that would be a nice thing to see.”

After 43 years in prison for a wrongful incarceration, Kevin Strickland was released from prison on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 in Cameron, Missouri, where attorney Tricia Rojo Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence Project wheeled him to a car as he spoke with fellow exoneree Robert Nelson, left, who was freed after spending nearly 30 years in Missouri prisons.
After 43 years in prison for a wrongful incarceration, Kevin Strickland was released from prison on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 in Cameron, Missouri, where attorney Tricia Rojo Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence Project wheeled him to a car as he spoke with fellow exoneree Robert Nelson, left, who was freed after spending nearly 30 years in Missouri prisons.
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