Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Daniel Desrochers and Luke Nozicka

Biden nominee was praised for helping free Kevin Strickland. It’s now being used against her

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kate Brubacher’s work to free Kevin Strickland from prison, overturning the longest known wrongful conviction in Missouri history, won her praise in Kansas City. But that work may be slowing down her confirmation to become the U.S. attorney for the District of Kansas.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn, upset over the lack of action on a U.S. attorney nominee in Tennessee, blocked a vote on Brubacher’s confirmation during last week’s Judiciary Committee meeting.

When explaining her opposition to Brubacher, Blackburn said she was involved in an effort to set aside the sentence of a man convicted in a triple homicide — but failed to mention that man was innocent.

Blackburn did not name him, but Brubacher played a critical role in the 2021 exoneration of Strickland, a Kansas City man who spent more than 40 years in prison for a triple murder he did not commit.

Blackburn is upset that President Joe Biden did not renominate Casey Arrowood, whose nomination to become U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee lapsed after opposition from some Asian American groups over his decision to prosecute a Tennessee professor on spying charges. In the committee meeting, Blackburn said she would attempt to block any nominee she finds more objectionable than Arrowood.

“Sen. Blackburn is using the Kansas nominee as a pawn in her fight with Senate Dems over the Tennessee nominee,” said Dan Nelson, who worked with Brubacher for more than four years when he was Jackson County’s chief deputy prosecutor. “This has nothing to do with reality or Kansas, and is a sad indication of the state of national politics.”

Blackburn’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

While Blackburn has been able to delay Brubacher’s nomination for at least a week, it’s unclear how much support she has to block her confirmation outright. Some Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have used their role to portray Biden and his nominees as soft on crime.

Blackburn’s hold on Burbacher’s nomination lasts a week. The Judiciary Committee will then be able to vote on her nomination.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Both of Kansas’ Republican senators have turned in their “blue slips” for Brubacher, where they can offer their opinion on a nominee. Generally, if both senators turn in their blue slip, it indicates the nominee is likely to be confirmed. But neither Sen. Roger Marshall nor Sen. Jerry Moran would say much in her favor beyond the fact that she had their approval.

Asked about Brubacher on Thursday, Marshall demurred on answering any questions about how he felt about her qualifications other than to say he had turned in his blue slip. His office did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt, a freshman Republican from Missouri, would not say whether he’ll vote to confirm Brubacher. Schmitt is not on the Judiciary Committee and his office said he will not take a position until her nomination comes to a vote on the Senate floor.

As Missouri attorney general, Schmitt actively worked against freeing Strickland. His office held the position that Strickland was guilty and repeatedly filed motions and appeals blocking his release.

“We operate in an adversarial system,” Schmitt said in 2022 to a Missouri House committee. “Even if somebody believes very passionately that someone is innocent or wrongly convicted, in court having to answer questions on cross examination, those sorts of things are a very important part of our system. And that is the role that we played.”

Jackson County prosecutors sought to free Strickland after determining he was “factually innocent” of the 1978 killings. The lone eyewitness recanted her identification of him, saying she got it wrong, and two men who admitted guilt swore Strickland was not with them during the shooting.

Brubacher was among the first people to hug Strickland as he was pushed in a wheelchair out of the Western Missouri Correctional Center, telling him, “Congratulations.” He thanked her.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who serves on the Judiciary Committee and has opposed more of Biden’s nominees than any other senator, said he would have to look into Brubacher’s record.

“I can’t imagine I wouldn’t vote no, but I’ll look into it,” Hawley said on Thursday.

Hawley has been particularly aggressive when it comes to high-profile nominees and was a driving force behind the criticism of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s sentences for people convicted of child pornography crimes, even though they largely fell within the nation’s average.

Brubacher was praised locally for her work on the case, with Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker saying Strickland would not be free today without her. City politicians supported their effort, with Kansas City’s City Council at the time urging Missouri Gov. Mike Parson to pardon Strickland.

In her comments, Sen. Blackburn also claimed that Brubacher has called herself a “prison abolitionist.”

Blackburn’s office did not respond to a question asking for the source of her claim.

But as a prosecutor, Brubacher helped send killers to prison, including Fazon Swinton, who was convicted of second-degree murder for shooting a man in 2016 during a botched gun transaction in Kansas City. He’s serving a 24-year sentence in the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Nelson, who worked with Brubacher at the Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, said Brubacher is “absolutely not” a prison abolitionist. He called Blackburn’s statement “verifiably false.”

Brubacher sat on the office’s homicide committee, meaning she weighed in on every charging decision for murder cases. Nelson, who is also a former federal prosecutor, said when complicated legal issues arose, they landed on Brubacher’s desk because she is “such a brilliant” attorney.

“She is a strong victim advocate and an advocate for prison in appropriate cases — just not cases of actual innocence where that can be proven,” he said.

Mike Mansur, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office, said that during Brubacher’s tenure there, he “never” heard her describe herself as a prison abolitionist.

Brubacher has said she is honored to be nominated and looks forward to the confirmation process.


Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.