When innocence is pink
Wrongly convicted women fight for recognition, support, remedies
Published: January 12, 2011
Paula Gray, for example, falsely confessed and was convicted along with three men of a 1978 Chicago double homicide. A young couple was attacked, the woman raped and both killed. DNA evidence eventually corroborated the confessions of three other men. Gray and the three men previously convicted were released and pardoned.
The other three Innocence Project women — Ada Joann Taylor, Kathy Gonzalez and Debra Shelden — were also charged along with three men in the rape and murder of an elderly woman in Nebraska in 1985. The women agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and testified falsely at a co-defendant's trial in 1989. DNA evidence eventually identified another man as the attacker in 2007. The governor pardoned all six in 2009.
But the vast majority of women who are in prison — justifiably or not — did not have DNA evidence as part of their case file. With the Innocence Project and its dozens of national affiliates working on DNA cases, the University of Michigan's new Innocence Clinic is handling only non-DNA cases, and three of the first 13 clients have been women.
"We haven't made a lot of progress in translating that into cases where there is no DNA evidence and, unfortunately for women, there often isn't any," says Bridget McCormack, co-director of the University of Michigan clinic.
Still, the clinic's three cases with female clients are progressing with some successes. The Michigan Supreme Court has agreed to hear one of the women's cases — a dispute over when courts can order indigent defendants to pay child support.
In a second case, Lorinda Swain, has been granted a new trial by a Calhoun County judge, but that was overturned by the Michigan Court of Appeals and upheld by the Supreme Court. The clinic has filed a motion for reconsideration of that decision.
The third was Julie Baumer.
Charged but no crime
Working in the mortgage business after souring on a degree and career in law enforcement, Baumer was living in Harrison Township with her chihuahua and two cats when her nephew, Philipp, was born. Born to a crack-using mother, he spent his first week hospitalized. But he went home with Baumer, who planned to adopt him as her sister worked to get clean.
Five weeks later, he was vomiting and unresponsive. Baumer took him to the Mount Clemens General Hospital emergency room, and he was transferred to Children's Hospital of Michigan in downtown Detroit.
Doctors there would decide his brain swelling and other symptoms were the result of Baumer's violent actions. She remembers the police interrogations as focusing on her mental state.
"They certainly wanted to imply and insinuate that my emotions were so out of whack that perhaps I freaked out and subjected Philipp to some form of trauma, if you will, because I was overly emotional or frustrated from being a single parent," she says.
Her attorney warned her about how to present herself at trial — even discussing her weight — given that she is a woman and the charges involved harming a child.
"He told me, 'If you're too light, they're going to think you're too girly, but if you're too heavy, they're going to think you're a perpetrator. If you speak too softly, they're not going to take you seriously, but if you speak too harshly, they're going to think you can't control your emotions."
But what she believed was this: "No jury is going to find me guilty because I know I'm not guilty."
She was tried, convicted and sentenced to 10 to 15 years. Her parents took her pets. Most of her friends forgot her. Few wrote. Even fewer visited. "They'd say, 'We didn't know what to say' or, 'We weren't sure what to believe.' A couple of them threw that line at me, 'The jury said you were guilty. We didn't want to be involved,'" Baumer says.
In the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility, Michigan's only women's prison, she quickly found it wasn't just men accused of harming children who are attacked and ostracized in prison. The women there are mothers, aunts and grandmothers on the outside. "They have some connection to some child out in the world despite their crimes, so they have that sympathetic feeling for the child. And, of course, if you're charged and convicted for a crime against a child, you automatically become this horrendous monster with no emotions, feelings or morals," Baumer says.
Soon after she was in, she had women asking her if it was true she stapled a baby's eyes shut, pulled out his toenails or cooked him in the microwave.
Baumer says she stoically ignored the questions.
"Ironically, in a sense that earned me a lot of respect." Officers and other staffers, long-timers and lifers eventually became supportive.
"They drew to me because they realized that I wasn't just somebody else who was going to come in and make more chaos."
But Baumer maintained she was serving a sentence where no crime had even been committed.
"You think it's one in a million where they made a mistake, but you don't realize how many mistakes and flaws the criminal justice system has," Baumer says.
Finally someone believed her.
The Macomb County Prosecutor at the time of her trial, though not directly involved, Marlinga took up her appeal knowing it would be difficult.
"I think initially juries are sympathetic to the thought of a woman being tried, but then as soon as the opening statement by the prosecutor comes out, it seems that all of that sympathy goes out the window," Marlinga says. "I think it has to do with our kind of preconceived notions about women as being kind-hearted, good nurturers."
Experts who hadn't been called at the first trial said that it was extremely likely that Philipp had had a stroke, not suffered abuse, Marlinga found. By pointing out that Baumer's original defense should have called them, Marlinga won Baumer a new trial in late 2009.
She was released on a tether and began working for her brother-in-law as a plumber, a skill learned in prison.
In October, attorneys and law students from the University of Michigan defended her in the retrial, calling six expert witnesses who did not take fees for their testimony. The jury acquitted her, the tether came off, and life started over for the 34-year-old. She continued working for her brother, caring for her now-widower father, and figuring out what she would do. Her former employer is out of business, and she has an eight-year gap on her résumé. But a student loan that she defaulted on while in prison is now clear, and she resumes classes this semester toward a criminal justice degree while she starts a new job in housekeeping on the midnight shift to make ends meet.
"I don't know where I'd be today if I hadn't been incarcerated. But I certainly wouldn't be making $9 an hour buffing floors," Baumer says. She says that she doesn't want to portray herself as a victim or be pitied. Yet she points out that she'll "never get back" the trauma she endured, A month after her acquittal, her attorneys called and told her about a gathering they thought she should attend.
Five years ago, Gloria Killian looked around the annual national conference hosted by the Innocence Network, a group that was formalized in 2005 to bring together many of the affiliate Innocence Projects and other advocacy, education and research efforts. Killian realized she was the only woman among the exonerees in attendance. For two more years, the ratio was the same: dozens to one.
"I was always looking for other women," says the California woman who attended law school before her conviction. "I was pretty sure I wasn't the only female in the country that has been exonerated."
Killian served 16 years of a 32-year sentence for a Sacramento-area murder-robbery before a federal appeals court determined she had been convicted solely on perjured testimony and set aside her conviction. The district attorney who prosecuted her was eventually charged by the California State Bar, found guilty and admonished.
In the eight years she's been out, she founded and directed the Action Committee for Women in Prison, a nonprofit that advocates for innocent women behind bars.
"One of the good experiences about being in prison — and, shocking, there are some — if you have a life sentence, at least in California, you're required to go to psychology groups. I became very used to and very comfortable sitting in a circle with people talking about things," she says.
Attending the conferences with all men didn't have the same healing dynamic for her.
"I'm very close to some of the male exonerees, but the fact remains that it's a very different way of dealing with this," she says. "It was very different being the only female there. ... Because men express themselves so differently, I was uncomfortable."
After she and Harper met at the April 2010 Innocence Network conference in Atlanta, they decided a women's innocence conference was necessary. In November, it happened at a Troy hotel, complete with spa time for pedicures, Kate Spade-donated favors and, most importantly, attendance by exonerated women, attorneys, supporters and family members from 15 states.
"It was very different and very amazing," says Killian. "We may be able to make a difference."
For Baumer, it already has. Her second trial ended less than a month before the conference, and she had originally balked at going. She doubted if sitting around with a bunch of strangers could help her re-establish her life.
"At first, I was a little leery because I wasn't really sure what I was getting into or what it all entailed," she says. "I'm not saying I'm immune to having issues or post-traumatic stress, but I don't want to be in that crowd that's like, 'I'm a victim; help me.'"
The conference's warmth, acceptance and advocacy focus changed her mind about its value.
"It was like, wow. I don't have to be ashamed. ... I don't have to explain myself. It's a done deal because everybody's been there or they've known someone who was," she says. "Everyone's situation is important; however, everyone's situation is unique."
Baumer had never met another woman who'd gone through an experience similar to her own, but there were eight there who had spent more than 60 collective years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Many of them will attend the national Innocence Network conference this April in Cincinnati, organized and ready to push for a more female focus on the innocence movement's national agenda. Nonprofit status is in the works for Women and Innocence. A book is planned. Grant applications for funding are being developed.
Like other innocence advocates, they will seek to strengthen state laws that provide compensation for the wrongly convicted. Michigan is one of 23 states that does not provide compensation.
Brown, who has been out for 20 years in Texas, says one of the most important aspects of the new group is the invaluable support it will provide to innocent women in prison.
"It's very important, especially when you know that you have a group of individuals that's on the outside fighting for you," she says. "It lifts a person, it makes them want to help themselves when somebody on the outside is working to try and free you. ... I just know that this is going to be an organization that will be able to assist."
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