Bearing the burden of love
The unique experience of wrongly convicted women
Women are central to the innocence movement. They are devoted advocates, mothers, daughters, partners, and friends to those wronged by injustice. While the majority of exonerees are men, there are over 200 women who have been exonerated in the U.S. and their stories need to be told. Forty percent of these women were convicted of harming their children or loved one. Women bear the burden of losing kin to unforeseen circumstances like house fires or an undetected illness and then endure the horror of being convicted for the death of their loved one, which in many cases was not a crime at all.
“I’m so overwhelmed and so happy and so grateful for all the people that have believed in me and fought for me all these years.”
Kirstin Blaise Lobato
15 years served
Kirstin Blaise Lobato was just 18 years old when she was charged with the 2001 murder of Duran Bailey, a homeless man in Las Vegas. She was tried twice for the crime and always maintained her innocence. Two months before Bailey was killed, Lobato was visiting friends in Las Vegas when she was attacked in a motel parking lot by a man who attempted to rape her. She slashed at the man’s groin area with a small knife her father had given her for protection and escaped his grasp.
In the coming days and weeks, she described this attack to numerous people, making clear that it occurred before July 2001 and stating that she believed she may have cut the man before running off to safety. The police recorded a statement in which Lobato described the attempted rape in late May, stating that it had happened “at least a month ago.” Under the mistaken belief that police were informing her that the man who tried to rape her had died, she expressed remorse, and made other comments that the detective took as a confession for Bailey’s murder, even though the event Lobato described was glaringly at odds with the basic facts of his killing which occurred in July. With no physical or forensic evidence linking Lobato to this crime, this was the only main piece of evidence used to wrongfully convict Lobato, transforming her from victim to murderer.
The Innocence Project took her case in 2016. At a five-day hearing in October 2017, her team of Innocence Project lawyers presented evidence from a pathologist and three entomologists establishing that the victim was killed at a time when Lobato was in her hometown of Panaca, several hours away from Las Vegas where the murder occurred. Based on this critical evidence, which Lobato’s trial lawyers failed to present to the juries that convicted her, Judge Stephanie Miley vacated Blaise’s convictions on December 19, 2017. Ten days later, upon the motion of the Clark County District Attorney’s Office, Clark County District Court’s Honorable Chief Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez dismissed all charges against Lobato and ordered her to be released from prison.
Legal team: Innocence Project’s Vanessa Potkin, Barry Scheck, Adnan Sultan, and Jane Pucher; local counsel David Chesnoff and Robert Demarco of Chesnoff & Schonfeld.
“I spent 20 years wrongfully in prison for something I didn't do, and I’ve been fighting all these years to prove that. It was very hard; it was a struggle every day. But I survived. I’m a survivor.”
20 years served
In the early morning of September 12, 1994, Michelle Murphy awoke to find her infant son Travis dead on her kitchen floor. Oklahoma City police, eager to identify the culprit, aggressively interrogated Murphy—only 17 at the time—for seven and a half hours without a parent or guardian present. Hysterical with grief, Murphy gave a statement implicating herself of the crime. A detective had told her that she could see her elder child—then two years old— if she admitted that she was guilty.
Despite the investigators and the prosecutor knowing that Michelle’s statement didn’t add up, and later finding evidence that pointed to another individual, Michelle was charged with murder and her confession was used against her in court.
In 1995, a jury found Murphy guilty of stabbing to death her three-month-old son and sentenced her to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Legal Team: Innocence Project’s Barry Scheck and Karen Thompson; Local counsel O’Carroll & O’Carroll.
“I turned my cell into a sanctuary ... I think I learned more about freedom while I was sentenced to death than I had ever known before because I experienced myself now as a spirit on my journey here rather than as a victim and a poor helpless lump of flesh that they could keep locked up.”
17 years served
In 1976, Sonia ‘Sunny’ Jacobs was sentenced to death at the age of 28, along with her partner Jesse Tafero, for the murder of two police officers in Florida. Their conviction primarily relied on the testimony of Tafero’s friend, Walter Rhodes, who pled guilty to the crime in exchange for a reduced charge of second-degree murder, and was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1981, the Florida Supreme Court denied Jacobs a new trial but had her death sentence commuted to life in prison. After requesting federal writs of habeas corpus, Tafero was denied and Jacobs won a hearing where eventually the jailhouse informant who had played a role in sending Jacobs to death row admitted that she committed perjury and that Jacobs did not confess. Tragically, Tafero remained on death row and was put to death in a botched electric chair execution on May 4, 1990.
Jacobs’ story, along with those of five other wrongfully convicted death row inmates, was featured in the play The Exonerated. In 2001, she married Peter Pringle, from Ireland who also survived death row after 15 years for the murder of a police officer. Together they live on a farm in west Ireland where they host other exonerees.
Watch her TedX talk.
Legal team: Center on Wrongful Conviction.
“For a while we were just a number lost in a system, but then these wonderful people came along.”
San Antonio Four
15 years served
Four best friends–Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez also known at the San Antonio Four– were wrongfully convicted in 1997 and 1998 of raping Ramirez’s seven- and nine-year-old nieces.
The two nieces testified that they were sexually assaulted by the four women at gunpoint. Medical testing indicated damage to the girls’ genitals; the expert witness on the case stated that the wounds could have been caused only by penetration with foreign objects. Prosecutors also exploited homophobia against the women, who were lesbians, to convince the jury that they were guilty of these sexual felonies. Ramirez was convicted in 1997 and sentenced to almost 38 years in prison. The remaining three women were convicted the following year, and each sentenced to 15 years.
The women always maintained their innocence and refused to take a plea deal.
In 2013, Mike Ware and the Innocence Project of Texas filed for post-conviction relief on behalf of Ramirez, Mayhugh, Rivera and Vasquez based on the fact that the medical testimony presented in court was erroneous and one of Ramirez’s nieces recanted her testimony, admitting that family had forced her to make a false statement. Three years later in November 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals declared them factually innocent.
“I could have been doing so much with my life right about now. It’s just not fair.”
Latisha Johnson and Malisha Blyden
8 years served
After an almost 24-hour unrecorded interrogation, Johnson falsely confessed to a role in the crime and signed a statement with numerous inaccuracies about the crime. Detectives also showed the womens’ pictures to neighbors who witnessed the crime; because the photos were not in an array, the identification process was blatantly suggestive, but the identifications were allowed into court anyway.
The women were convicted and sentenced to 40-year prison terms, but the case was turned over to the Office of the Appellate Defender, where it was flagged for special attention. It was then that a team of lawyers and investigators finally uncovered what really happened the night Peseo was attacked.
According to Anastasia Heeger, the director of the Reinvestigation Project in the Office of the Appellate Office, while Johnson and Blyden were under indictment, four men were arrested in another shooting case and ultimately pleaded guilty to the shooting robbery of Peseo. The men were unknown to Johnson and Blyden.
Once this evidence was presented to the Bronx district attorney’s office, prosecutors quickly agreed that the convictions should be vacated.
Blyden and Johnson filed federal lawsuits against the city of New York. Blyden settled in 2017 for $2,670,000. Johnson settled for an undisclosed amount.
Blyden said, “I feel like the time they took from me, there’s no amount of money that can replace that. I could have been doing so much with my life right about now. It’s just not fair.”
Legal team: Kerry Jamieson, a Senior Staff Attorney in the Office of the Appellate Defender in New York, represented Johnson’s appeal. Claudia Trupp of the Center for Appellate Litigation represented Blyden.
“I walked out of prison with a plastic bag containing my prison uniform and tennis shoes. I didn’t even have a toothbrush when I walked out.”
17 years served
Kristine Bunch was 22 and pregnant when she was found guilty of arson and the murder of her three-year-old son Anthony in Indiana. She was sentenced to 60 years in prison for murder and 50 years largely based on what was thought to be arson evidence at the time. In the following decades, fire science changed dramatically and the so-called evidence of arson was debunked.
Bunch spent 17 years in prison before a more reliable technique called fire toxicology emerged and revealed that the fire that killed Bunch’s son was accidental. She walked free from prison just a few days before Christmas 2012 and later filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, which was pending as of October 2015.
Since her exoneration in 2012, Bunch has become a fierce advocate for criminal justice reform, testifying before legislators in Wyoming, for instance, where a wrongly convicted person has only two years from the date of their guilty verdict to present new evidence of their innocence–even if there’s no way the evidence could have been discovered at that time. Had Bunch’s case occurred in Wyoming, Kristine probably would not have been able to get her conviction overturned.
Also, with exoneree Juan Rivera, she launched Just Is 4 Just Us, a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide exonerees with practical resources as they rebuild their lives after prison. Most recently, she published a book on her wrongful conviction, Justice for Miss America.
Legal team: Center on Wrongful Conviction, Ronald S. Safer and Kelly M. Warner of Schiff Hardin LLP, and Jon Laramore of Faegre Bake Daniels LLP.
23 years away from her son Lamonte
On October 13, 2017 Rosie McIntyre’s son Lamonte was exonerated of a double murder. Just 17 years old when both men were murdered, Lamonte was on the other side of town with his family. The police spent less than 20 minutes investigating the crime. Lamonte was convicted and sentenced to two life terms. For the first seven years of his imprisonment, McIntyre, a single mother of five, was Lamonte’s primary advocate. She poured all of her time and energy into visiting her son in prison and investigating the murder to help prove his innocence. Even after undergoing stomach surgery, McIntyre showed up to Lamonte’s appeal in the Oklahoma Supreme Court holding a pillow over the wound. Even in her worst moments, she showed up for her son. After Lamonte exhausted all of his appeals, The Midwest Innocence Project joined Cheryl Pilate of Morgan Pilate LLC, and Centurion Ministries to take on his case. He was exonerated after 23 years in prison and now is at the forefront of working to pass compensation legislation in Kansas, which is one 18 states in the U.S. that does not compensate exonerees for their unjust imprisonment. McIntyre wants to do what she can so that not one other family suffers the nightmare of wrongful conviction.
“When he was doing time, I was too. I didn’t have a life of my own, I didn’t have friends, I went into a depression. I never enjoyed holidays or birthdays. It took a lot out of me including my health. I was trying to fight so hard to get my son freed that I ignored my other four children … for two weeks, I dressed up like a man to investigate the street where the crime happened to try to pick up all the clues that would help free my son. Never give up, continue to fight for what you believe in.”
Betty Anne Waters
18 years away from her brother Kenny
Betty Anne Waters’ brother Kenny was in his twenties when he was convicted of murdering his neighbor. Waters put herself through college and law school for the sole purpose of helping her brother. She worked tirelessly with the Innocence Project to bring about his exoneration in 2001. He had spent 18 years in prison and tragically died six months after he was released. Their story inspired the 2010 feature film ‘Conviction’ directed by Tony Goldwyn and starring Hilary Swank as Waters. Waters continued her advocacy as a volunteer case reviewer for the New England Innocence Project and as an attorney for Raymond Tempest, her brother’s friend who was recently released in 2015 and entered an Alford Plea in December 2017, maintaining his innocence of the crime and ending his home confinement.
“After Kenny lost all of his appeals, he tried to commit suicide. I was so mad at him but also broken hearted. I didn’t know what to say. How do you console something like this? He said: ‘Betty Anne the only way I am going to get through this is if you go back to school, become a lawyer, and get me out of here’. I was like ‘you’re kidding I only have a GED.’ I didn’t have a clue if I could even make it through community college, never mind make it to law school. The holy grail was finding out about Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project.”
5 years away from her son Yusef
In 1989, Sharonne Salaam became a crusader for justice when her son, Yusef Salaam, and four other teens—Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson and Antron McCray, also known as the Central Park Five—were wrongly accused of raping and nearly killing a woman in Central Park. Salaam remained a strong and steady advocate for her son until he was exonerated in 2002. And Salaam’s engagement around justice for wrongfully convicted people continues strong today, reaching new heights as she led the charge for a group of activists traveling by foot from New York City to Albany to call for legislative reform.
“As parents we still haven’t received justice for all the wrongs that have been done to us. Many of these men and women who go to court and get convicted lose their whole livelihoods … Nothing is done to heal that. Never stop talking about the wrongful conviction. Shout it off the rooftop, whether people believe it or not. Get out there and work for some sort of change in the system. You never know, you might be the one to lead us over.”
20 years away from her son Steven
In 1989, Sylvia Barnes’ son Steven, age 23, was convicted of murdering a teenage girl in upstate New York based on questionable eyewitness identifications and three types of unvalidated forensic science. After five years in prison, Barnes saw Barry Scheck on The Phil Donahue show and called [director assitance] 555-1212 to track down the Innocence Project. She wrote a 20-page letter detailing all of the facts of his case to demonstrate his innocence. Six months later, the Innocence Project wrote back and Steven was case #0018. Although the initial DNA results came back inconclusive, Barnes and her family never gave up on Steven. In 2007, the Innocence Project reopened the case and was able to find exculpatory DNA evidence. Steven came home two days before Thanksgiving in 2008 at the age of 43. Barnes has been an active volunteer and spokesperson for the wrongly convicted in New York and has affectionately garnered the name “Mama Innocence.”
“It was a lot of money. I did everything. I had to pay relatives back. Every weekend for 20 years I traveled three hours to visit him to keep his spirit up. It’s strenuous on your body—I had a broken heart for 20 years. As a mother, you just don’t stop fighting for your child.”
15 years away from her daughter Kirstin
Ravell built a Facebook group supporting Lobato’s case for innocence, kept her daughter’s case organized, and most of all stood by her each step of the way.
“There was a change in the narrative about the absurdity of Blaise’s case and how innocent she was,” said Adnan Sultan, one of Lobato’s Innocence Project attorneys.
Now that Lobato has been exonerated, Ravell can look back on how they reached this point.
“My job always has been emotional support but also to raise awareness,” said Ravell. “We can do that now because we have social media. The first thing I did when I was so upset about her conviction was to make this really hokie website, I didn’t know what I was doing. Now you can go on the internet and you can find almost everything you need. You have to build a group of strong-minded people who will continue to support this person.”
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