Wrongly convicted women fight for recognition, support, remedies
Published: January 12, 2011
From a deep sleep, Julie Rea Harper awoke to screams.
They were coming from her 10-year-old son in his bed in the next room as he was being fatally stabbed with a knife from her kitchen. Rushing to her child, Harper surprised the intruder, who dragged her into the backyard, struck her in the face and fled.
Harper called police in her downstate Illinois town. In retrospect, she thought they’d hunt down her child’s killer while his trail was fresh.
Instead, they suspected her.
That was despite the fact that her son’s room was covered in his blood, but Harper’s clothes weren’t splattered. And when police searched her plumbing system for signs of her cleanup, they found none. But they found her story of a random intruder incredible and continued to focus on her, perhaps finding it easier or safer to build a case against what they decided was a crazy, irrational woman instead of a random stranger who could have struck at anyone in the small town.
Harper, who now lives in suburban Detroit, was eventually tried, convicted and sentenced to 65 years in prison for her son’s 1997 murder. In the following years, dozens of attorneys, investigators and advocates worked to challenge her conviction. They got a big break when a child serial killer on death row in Texas confessed to the attack and an appellate court vacated her conviction. In 2006, Harper was retried but found not guilty. She had already served roughly two years.
“It’s very painful to keep remembering what it was like in there,” Harper says, “and that at any moment you could be pulled back into it.”
Just weeks ago, she received a certificate of innocence from the Illinois courts, an official declaration that she was not responsible for the death of her son.
While much attention has been given to the hundreds of men who have been exonerated of rapes and murders by DNA evidence during the last decade, Harper is among the handful of wrongly convicted women who have had their cases re-examined and their guilty verdicts changed without the relative
luxury of such science and forensic proof.
Their charges have — more often than men’s — stemmed from allegations of child abuse or sexual conduct involving children, studies have shown. Compared to men, they also have been more often accused of violence against family members, as in Harper’s case.
With those charges comes a particular burden: the obvious grief over the loss of or the harm to a loved one, compounded by the horror of being accused, convicted and imprisoned for that very crime.
“The main difference with women from men in wrongful conviction cases is women are generally accused of harming someone they’re close to,” says Laura Caldwell, an attorney and director of the Life After Innocence Project at Loyola University’s School of Law in Chicago. “There’s a double-whammy.”
And, as with male prisoners, women convicted of abusing children are ostracized or harassed in prison. “This is traumatic stuff,” Caldwell says.
‘Terrible, uphill climb’
To have any hope of exoneration, the wrongfully convicted need to begin with compelling new evidence and a sympathetic legal team. Then they need to draw a willing judge or appellate panel; that’s a lucky break in a criminal justice system that’s designed to uphold earlier actions instead of investigating them and correcting mistakes. Or maybe they can find a courageous governor who’ll believe their claim of innocence and be willing to publicly acknowledge it in a pardon.
“It’s a terrible, uphill climb. There’s a lot of skepticism both among the public and judges,” says Carl Marlinga, former Macomb County Prosecutor. “If you don’t have the 100 percent answer [with DNA], a 99 percent answer is maybe not enough for some judges and the general public.”
In 2009, Marlinga, now in private practice, won a new trial for a Mount Clemens woman, Julie Baumer, who was convicted of first-degree child abuse in 2005 involving her newborn nephew. A jury last year found her not guilty after students and attorneys from the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic proved the infant’s injuries were the result of a stroke instead of Baumer’s alleged abuse.
“Overturning a wrongful conviction for a woman is probably one of the hardest tasks there is,” Marlinga says.
No national organization or formal support network has existed to advocate specifically for innocent women still imprisoned or to support exonerated women in restarting their lives once they are released.
But last year, a handful of these women who had been frustrated by the overwhelming preponderance of men at a national innocence conference organized a meeting in suburban Detroit to focus on women and their experiences and needs. Harper, living here, was the connection, and she did the lioness’ share of the preparations, attendees say.
About 60 attorneys, counselors, parents of wrongly accused women, exonerees — men and women — and other advocates got together for both formal presentations and informal meetings at the November conference.
They talked. They cried. They shared. They figured out they weren’t alone.
And they were energized to do more to promote public awareness of the causes of wrongful convictions of women, to find legal support for innocent women in prison and to support women who are trying to put their lives back together after imprisonment.
“For women exonerees, by women exonerees? I think that’s the best kind of support,” says Karen Wolff, a social worker with the national Innocence Project who attended the conference. “They are the only ones who’ve experienced it, the only ones who can talk about and feel what it’s like to be innocent and incarcerated and to come out and create a new life after having been away for so long. There’s a different kind of help they offer than we [can] as social workers or anybody else.”
Calling themselves “Women and Innocence,” the new group is the first of its kind.
“This was something that had been on my mind for a long time,” says Joyce Ann Brown, falsely accused and convicted in Texas of a double murder. Released 21 years ago after serving nine years, she runs a nonprofit organization that helps men and women, guilty or innocent of the crimes for which they served time, readjust to society. “I just truly know that this is going to be an organization that will be able to assist innocent women in prison.”