The Many Examples of the Power of Innocence Projects

Joyce Ann Brown attends the Women’s Project event. Photo credit: Randy Belice

Four women stood at the front of a room, speaking before the small crowd with strong voices even though each had gone through a harrowing and emotional experience.

The women – Joyce Ann Brown, Audrey Edmunds, Tabitha Pollock and Gloria Goodwin-Killian – had all been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. In total, they spent 45 years incarcerated, knowing all the while they were innocent and clinging to some hope that this fact would come to light.

Now free, thanks in no small part to innocence projects around the nation, their testimonies before the crowd headlined the commencement of the Women’s Project at the Northwestern University law school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions this month.

“In the Center’s 13 year history, we’ve represented four women, all of whom were accused and wrongfully convicted of the murders of their children,” said Karen Daniel, a co-director of the Women’s Project and a professor at Northwestern University. “We at the Center got to thinking about these cases and we recognized that there were some startling similarities among these cases that we were dealing with that had not arisen in any of the cases with men.”

Northwestern University has a track record of addressing wrongful convictions from unconventional angles with success. The university’s journalism school houses the Medill Innocence Project, which is one of the only innocence projects in the world that works from a purely journalistic angle, and the law school’s Children and Family Justice Center has trained law students to work with attorneys and social workers to exonerate wrongfully convicted youth since 1992.

(Most recently, the Medill effort has taken on the study and investigation of Shaken Baby Syndrome cases, noting that science has taught many new lessons over the years with this diagnosis and that what were once open-and-shut SBS cases now warrant closer study.)

And at the law school, Daniel specifically noted the youth program’s success in changing police and prosecutor investigation procedure for minors. She hopes to mirror that success with the Women’s Project, which serves another specialized demographic with unique legal needs.

“We have a very successful project here at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth,” Daniel said. “We’ll see where the research takes us.”

With these two projects as examples, the CWC is giving a nod to the fact that different sexes and different age groups pose sharply different legal concerns. And by separating them out, studying these groups in greater isolation without ignoring that there is, of course, much general overlap in criminal law, the CWC is more confident of success going forward.

“A lot of what takes place in criminal law and police practice is based on what they expect people to do, how a normal person would react under a different set of situations,” Daniel said. “We feel like we need to challenge those norms because they don’t apply across the board, but perhaps the generalities apply even less to women than they do to men.”

False Eyewitness Testimony

Joyce Ann Brown is an imposing figure who doesn’t speak so much as project. When she gets emotional, she doesn’t cry. She gets angry.

“Every time we talk about our cases, the emotions flow,” Brown said. “It’s been [23] years [since I was exonerated] and I still have that anger.”

Brown spent nine years, five months and 24 days in prison after two black women walked into a fur store in Dallas, shot and killed the owner and cleaned out the cash registers. Brown was convicted in 1980 largely on the testimony of a single eyewitness, who simply claimed that Brown looked similar to one of the two women. Another strike came from a jailhouse informant who testified that Brown confessed to the crime soon after she was incarcerated.

“The [district attorney] was able to ‘prove’ that I changed clothes, drove three and a half miles [from work], robbed the store, watched a man get shot down like a dog, changed clothes [and] drove three and a half miles back to where I worked in seven and a half minutes,” Brown said. “I had 13 co-workers testify that I was at work. I had time cards to prove that I was at work. But I was convicted and given a life sentence.”

Brown had no chance of obtaining an early release on parole because, in Texas, inmates must admit their guilt and show remorse before they can be paroled.

“Never was I going to say I was sorry, never was I going to say I showed remorse and I certainly was not going to admit to a crime that I didn’t commit,” Brown insisted.

Brown was freed in 1989 after her case was picked up by Centurion Ministries, an innocence project based in New Jersey, and CBS “60 Minutes.” Now, 23 years later, she has become one of the nation’s leading activists for wrongfully convicted women.

“When I read a letter, and it’s clearly another Joyce Ann Brown story – that you can see that person did not commit that crime – that makes me angry,” Brown said. “It makes me angry enough to get up, make some telephone calls, try to find an innocence project, try to find some kind of system for that person who’s still sitting in prison.”

Gender-Biased Convictions

“We [have] started to think that perhaps the most prevalent factors that contribute to wrongful convictions of

Attendees gather at the Women’s Project opening reception. Photo credit: Randy Belice

men are not the same factors that most commonly contribute to the wrongful convictions of women,” Daniel said.

Brown added that, “Women have a habit of getting complacent. They are afraid of rejection. So when they get that first note of rejection, it’s like they just shut down and won’t continue to fight for their freedom, and they end up staying in prison.”

Tabitha Pollock is not the orator Brown is. She occasionally stutters and pauses from time to time, as if to collect her thoughts. But she most definitely is not complacent.

Go back 17 years to Oct. 10, 1995. Pollock was sleeping when her live-in boyfriend, Scott English, killed Pollock’s 3-year-old daughter Jami Sue at their home in Kewanee, Ill. Police investigations revealed that English had been abusing Jami Sue while Pollock was asleep for at least weeks, maybe even months. Coroners determined the cause of Jami Sue’s death to be blunt force trauma and asphyxiation, indicating that the abuse was simply too much for the 3-year-old’s body to handle.

Throughout the murder investigation, Pollock fully cooperated. She told investigators about injuries to her children that she had noticed in the preceding weeks, saying that both the boyfriend and the children had told her the injuries were due to accidents.

These statements were used against her in court.

“They charged me with the murder of my daughter,” Pollock said in a pained voice. “[It was] based on the theory that I should have known that my daughter was being abused.”

A year after the murder, based on that “should-have-known” theory, Pollock was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated battery. She was sentenced to 36 years in prison. Her appeal was shot down in 1999 by the Illinois Appellate Court, again on the grounds of “should-have-known,” despite the trial judge commenting that Pollock “did not commit the act of killing, nor did she intend to kill the child, nor was she present in the room when her boyfriend killed the child.”

Desperate, Pollock wrote to the CWC, who decided to review and investigate the case. In 2002, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed Tabitha’s conviction, holding that a defendant cannot be convicted on an accountability theory based on what he or she “should have known.”

“I wrote to Northwestern in ’99, and they took on my case because I knew I didn’t belong in prison. I didn’t do anything,” Pollock said. “[In winning my case,] Northwestern has gotten that law changed for everyone so that no one else can be charged under ‘should have known.’”

During the case, the CWC started to realize that gender played a seemingly large role in Pollock’s conviction, in that it’s more likely that a woman would be held responsible under the “should-have-known” theory than a man.

Once is chance, according to the saying, while twice is a coincidence and three times makes a pattern. Pollock’s case may have been an isolated incident, but the Women’s Project hopes to identify patterns.

In a follow-up email, Daniel said: “Women make up the majority of caregivers of children, so if something suspicious or unexplained happens to a child for which there is only circumstantial medical evidence of a crime (like SBS), then a woman may be more vulnerable to prosecution simply because she was there.”

Prosecutorial Misconduct

Gloria Goodwin-Killian, a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, was in the wrong place at the wrong time – and the Women’s Project sees room for research into the possibility that women, for example, could be more easily coerced by investigators and therefore become victims of misconduct.

Goodwin-Killian was a law student at the University of California when she was arrested in 1981 for a robbery and murder in Sacramento. The statute for murder in California allows for the death penalty, but the state had no solid evidence against Goodwin-Killian. In fact, the prosecutor on the case knew who actually committed the crime.

But the DA, who was later charged with misconduct, cut a deal with the actual perpetrator of the crime, exchanging a sentence reduction for false testimony and other undisclosed services. The DA spent months creating a case to implicate an unsuspecting Goodwin-Killian, a woman with limited resources to defend herself.

At the trial, Goodwin-Killian was blindsided by the mountain of false evidence against her. She was summarily convicted and sent to prison to await execution.

“The difference for women is often that women’s cases are the hardest cases to fight,” Goodwin-Killian said. “Luckily, I had some help.”

That help came in the form of an inmate visitor/advocate named Joyce Ride, the mother of America’s first female astronaut, Sally Ride. Over time, Ride became convinced that Goodwin-Killian was the victim of false testimony and prosecutorial misconduct. Ride financed the appeal and the investigation, incurring personal charges of almost $100,000, and an appellate court in San Francisco finally reversed Goodwin-Killian’s conviction in 1998.

The district attorney was eventually brought up on charges. But for Goodwin-Killian, it wasn’t enough.

“Seventeen and a half years later, after ruining my career, my life, forcing me to spend all my money fighting to stay alive,” she said, “the consequences of wrongful convictions can go on forever and ever and ever.”

Those at the Women’s Project understand there’s more healing to be done even after a wrongfully convicted woman is exonerated.

“The women who we know who have been exonerated are very interested in the issues of what kind of supports they need following their exoneration, to deal with the trauma that they’ve experienced,” said Judy Royal, the other co-director of the Women’s Project.

“Everyone who’s been wrongfully convicted and wrongfully imprisoned is traumatized. It’s obviously a horrible experience. But it just seems like for women, it seems to be even more difficult. There’s sometimes more to deal with emotionally, and that complicates things.”

Outdated Medical Evidence

Audrey Edmunds has dealt with such post-exoneration trauma. But she has persevered. She doesn’t just tell her story – she tells it with pride, standing tall and delivering her words in concise and powerful bites.

Pregnant with her third child in 1996, Edmunds kept herself busy by babysitting neighborhood children in her Waunakee, Wis. home. When an infant in her care started to make funny noises, Edmunds got concerned. The child went limp when Edmunds picked her up, spewing formula from her nose and mouth. Fearing that the infant was choking, Edmunds ran to her neighbor’s house, pleading for help.

Paramedics were called and the infant was rushed to a hospital. Despite the best efforts of the doctors, the child died that evening. During the examination initially performed when the infant was brought to the hospital, physicians found classic Shaken Baby Syndrome symptoms.

Coined in 1972, the term Shaken Baby Syndrome describes children, typically under the age of three, who are severely injured or even killed by violent shaking.

Victims of Shaken Baby Syndrome sometimes show no visible signs of harm, but have severe internal injuries due to undeveloped brains and neck muscles. According to the original 1972 theory, the victim would become unresponsive immediately following the shaking, making it obvious that the guilty person was the last person with the child. This was still the view held by most medical experts when Edmunds burst out her door, screaming, clutching an unresponsive infant.

Edmunds was immediately presumed guilty despite a mountain of evidence pointing to the contrary. The child had only come into Edmunds’s care an hour before the child’s body started to shut down. Doctors found much older hemorrhages inside the child’s brain. Nobody who ever knew Edmunds would have even imagined she’d be capable of abusing a child.

As one neighbor put it, “I never, ever even considered she might have done it.”

None of that mattered. During her trial, the prosecutor argued that Edmunds’ friends and supporters clearly “didn’t know the real her” and that the stress of being pregnant contributed to her presumed crime. But the medical testimony – based on outdated views from 1972 – was the most important piece of evidence. Due to the fact that she was the last person to be responsible for the infant before death, Edmunds was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Edmunds knew that new medical evidence would be essential to proving her innocence and securing her release. She just hoped that her case wouldn’t slip through the cracks and get lost.

“I was very, very fortunate to come into contact with the innocence project at UW-Madison, who picked up my case,” Edmunds said. “They came to me with evidence from a neurologist at UW-Madison, saying they knew I was wrongfully convicted. They told me that yes, there was definitely enough medical evidence to get me a new trial.”

By the time Edmunds finally secured a new trial in 2008, the mainstream medical opinion with regards to Shaken Baby Syndrome had shifted. There was new doubt as to whether shaking could have caused the brain injuries that the caused the death of the child in Edmunds’s care. After 12 years in prison, Edmunds’s conviction was reversed and the charges were dismissed.

If the Women’s Project is successful, wrongfully convicted women may feel more comfortable speaking out instead of relying on programs to find them.

“I went into prison two days after my youngest daughter’s first birthday,” Edmunds said, recalling eight years spent in a maximum security prison and four in a minimum security prison. “Prison was a culture shock; it was something I never got used to.

But now, she must acclimate to freedom.

“It was great this morning to take a shower and determine what time I wanted to shower, how hot or cold I wanted the shower and how long I wanted to be in that shower. It was wonderful to be in rush hour traffic, to get to a stop sign and say, ‘Do I want to go left or right?’ All of that is taken away in prison. Being free is wonderful.”