When Women Are
Wrongfully Convicted, Part 1
When those of us who are familiar with the World Of Wrongful Convictions think about the subject, we reflexively think about men to whom it
has happened. Since most of the stories that reach the headlines have pertained to men, this is not at all surprising. Yet women are not immune to wrongfully conviction. This two-part series is intended to raise awareness about the subject of women being wrongfully convicted.
I will review cases of women convicted wrongfully, and explore the impact of that circumstance on a mother, both from her perspective and the
perspective of her children. Hopefully, some insight may be gained with respect to what went wrong and what changes are needed in both the criminal justice and judicial systems to prevent future instances.
Betty Tyson was wrongfully convicted of murder in Rochester, New York, and served 25 years in prison before being proven innocent. She was New York State’s longest-serving female prisoner.
The facts of her case have been taken from a story published in e New York Times by Associated Press writer Ben Dobbin in March of 1999:
“Tyson was convicted in the slaying of Philadelphia businessman Timothy Haworth, 52, a consultant to Eastman Kodak Co. He was apparently soliciting a prostitute when he was strangled in an alley the night of May 25,1973. She was found guilty based on a confession. Her conviction was dismissed after a judge ruled that evidence of her innocence had been unlawfully suppressed. That evidence was that a police interview report
in which one teen-ager initially said he never saw Ms. Tyson with the victim was never turned over to the Defense, which contradicted his testimony at trial.
Further, by way of newly discovered evidence, he provided a 15-page affidavit in which he told of how at 16 years of age he was threatened for seven months while in jail, and how he was fearful that he would be charged with murder if he didn’t say he saw Tyson with the victim.
In addition, new evidence surfaced that two counselors that worked at the jail observed that Tyson was covered with welts and bruises shortly following her ‘confession’, which supported her contention that her confession was false and had been beaten out of her. It is important to note that the chief detective, who died in 1981, was investigated at least 10 times for allegedly abusing suspects, resigned in 1980 a er fabricating
evidence in an unrelated case.
In her lawsuit filed in 1999, Tyson, then 50, maintains she was robbed of her freedom, her wages, and her ability to bear children. She underwent a hysterectomy in prison and claims she would have gotten better medical treatment in a regular hospital.”
Joyce Brown was wrongfully convicted of aggravated robbery and spent nine years in prison in Dallas, Texas, before being cleared on Nov. 4, 1989.
The facts of her case are taken from the Fort Worth Star Telegram: “Brown was a receptionist at a fur company, and was convicted of robbing
another fur company, Fine Furs by Rubin, in which the proprieter was fatally shot. At trial, police said that the getaway car in the robbery had been rented in the name of Joyce Ann Brown, of Denver, and the widow of the proprieter identi-fied her and another woman as the robbers.
Police also identified a fingerprint of Brown’s on a coat hanger. Another witness claimed that Brown made a jailhouse confession to her. A joint request by both the Defense and the Prosecution to overturn her verdict resulted in the Texas Court Of Criminal Appeals throwing out her conviction.
The jailhouse informant had lied to a police officer in an unrelated case six months prior, but that information was never turned over to her defense attorneys. When she was released, Mrs. Brown said, ‘It’s like a dream come true. For nine years, five months, and twenty four days
it’s like I have been in the Twilight Zone. Now I’ve stepped out back into the land of the living with my family. My biggest regret is that I couldn’t be here when I lost my stepson to suicide. I lost all the youth of my daughter, all the dreams down the drain.’
Her daughter, Koquice Spencer, speaking to the impact that her mother’s wrongful incarceration had on her growing up, said that as a child, she went to see her mother in prison anytime someone she knew would make the trip. Remembering being an 11-year-old the year her mother was taken to prison, and that she didn’t understand what was going on. Schoolmates would ask her ‘Koquice, where is your mother?’ Spencer said she asked her mother once whether she robbed the fur store, and that her mother said ‘Mama didn’t do this. I’ll be here to take care of you shortly.’ That ‘shortly’ turned out to be nine years.”
Ellen Reasonover served 16 years out of a fifty-year prison sentence in St. Louis for a murder she did not commit. The account of her case are taken from an article written by Hans Sherer in the magazine Justice Denied: “Early on the morning of January 2, 1983 Ellen Reasonover ran out
of change while at a laundromat. She went to a nearby gas station to get some change and it happened to be the one where James Buckley worked and it was on the morning he was murdered. Ms. Reasonover couldn’t find an attendant to help her, so she went to a convenience store to get the change she needed. When she learned the next day there had been a murder at the gas station, she called the police to describe two men she had seen there and the vehicle they were driving.
She was rewarded for her desire to be a good Samaritan by becoming the chief suspect in James Buckley’s murder. The only evidence presented at trial against Ellen Reasonover was the testimony of two women with long criminal histories. The two women, Rose Joliff and Mary Ellen Lyner, had been in a cell with Reasonover a er her arrest. They both testified they heard her admit she had murdered James Buckley. However, five other
women jailed with Reasonover, including three in the jail cell with her at the same time as Joliff and Lyner, testified they didn’t hear Reasonover say anything incriminating.
At trial, the prosecution denied that it had agreed to exchange anything of value with Joliff and Lyner for their testimony.” The case was riddled with inconsistencies that simply could not square with the guilty verdict, such as: 1) No witness placed her at the scene of the murder; 2) There was no physical evidence found at the gas station linking her to James Buckley’s murder; 3) She was not found with, or linked to, the murder weapon; 4) The prosecution said her motive to murder Mr. Buckley was to rob the gas station, yet no money was taken from the cash register and nearly $3,000 was found in the gas station’s unlocked safe. Nonetheless, she had been convicted and remained so until it was overturned by a United
States District Court.
Ms. Reasonover’s conviction had made her eligible for the death penalty, and she had come within one vote of receiving it. Explaining what had happened in Reasonover’s case, prompting the overturning of the conviction, United States District Court Judge Hamilton wrote: “The prosecution’s failure to turn over evidence favorable to the defense rendered trial fundamentally unfair and deprived her of her rights under the Due Process Clause.”
Reasonover’s conviction was overturned in part because the Prosecution withheld two exculpatory audio tapes from the Defense in violation of pretrial discovery requirements. Those tapes were secretly recorded by police before her trial. Reasonover’s unwavering statements of innocence on the tapes corroborated her later testimony in court and undermined the testimony of the Prosecution’s two “star witnesses”.
One tape was of a conversation between Reasonover and Joliff four days after the Prosecution alleged that she confessed to Joliff. Reasonover repeatedly expressed her innocence on the tape and Joliff didn’t challenge her by making any mention of a previous confession. The other tape was secretly made in jail when Reasonover and her boyfriend, Stanley White, were placed in cells next to each other after they were initially arrested for questioning about the murder. In that conversation, which they did not know was being taped, they repeatedly expressed bewilderment
at their arrest and stated more than twenty times that they were innocent of having anything to do with anyone’s murder. Mr. White was questioned but not charged. The existence of the first tape was discovered in 1996, and the existence of the second was uncovered in June of 1999 when it was found in a box marked “Prosecutor’s Files.”
It also later came out that the prosecution’s denial that it had agreed to exchange anything of value with Joliff and Lyner for their testimony was false. Years after Reasonover’s conviction, it was uncovered that the prosecution paid Joliff in cash for her testimony, and Lyner was rewarded by having charges of participating in a major credit card scam dropped. Writer Sherer, in his Justice Denied article, included the following: “The
former prosecutor, Steven Goldman, who orchestrated Ellen Reasonover’s conviction, expressed disappointment with Judge Hamilton’s ruling.
Goldman contends that Ms. Reasonover was accorded a ‘fair trial’ and she should still be in prison. After being falsely imprisoned and kept from raising her daughter from the time she was two years old, Ellen Reasonover describes Goldman as ‘an evil man with no conscience and no heart.’ She also wondered out loud,in a rhetorical fashion, ‘I’m the victim here. Who’s going to prosecute him?’” When a woman is wrongfully convicted,
there are most often clear differences as compared to the circumstances involving a man. For one thing, men do not have the biological clock that women do. Thus, a woman may pass the time period in her life in which she is capable of bearing children. Those who have already had children must deal with the experience of separation, as in the case of Joyce Brown, who was taken from her child, leaving the child confused and traumatized. Because children are more likely to spend daytime hours with their mother, the children of imprisoned mothers may be vulnerable to cruel teasing by other youngsters.
The experience of being forcibly separated from one’s children and family, the emotional pain, and the missing out of all of the precious moments as one’s child grows up and goes through the stages of life, is, to my way of thinking, tantamount to kidnapping. As such, in cases that involve prosecutorial or police misconduct, it seems obvious that financial, as well as incarcerative, penalties are needed. The absence of legislation providing for such preventative penalties seems both criminal and a carte blanche opportunity for rogue prosecutors and police officers to continue to engage in misconduct.
Analyzing what went wrong to cause the wrongful convictions in the above cases, one discovers common themes that continue to raise their ugly
heads. Once again, such tragic accounts illustrate the need to pass reforms that would prevent such misconduct from continuing to occur.
Incentivized witnessing, when witness’s receive rewards in exchange for falsely testifying against other people, played a role in both Reasonover’s and Brown’s wrongful convictions. Nationwide, incentivized witnessing has resulted in 15 percent of the now 218 DNA proven wrongful conviction cases. Prosecutorial misconduct, specifi-cally the withholding of evidence of innocence, in legal jargon referred to as Brady Material was a common thread than ran through these cases and further underscores the need for incarcerative and financial penalties for both state and federal prosecutors and law enforcement. Without them, there is nothing to hold rogue police and prosecutorial misconduct in check. They
have, in effect, the opportunity to do whatever they want, with no penalties. The irrevocable connection between wrongful convictions and the death penalty is again reiterated. Reasonover came within one vote of getting it, and Tyson could have received it had New York had a death penalty in place.
It is important to understand that in almost all reversed wrongful conviction cases it was concerned citizens, advocates, and non-profit organizations, such as Centurion Ministries, that worked to obtain the freedom of the wrongfully convicted. That is not an indication that the System, in any way, was working, or that it caught it’s own errors.
It is both sickening and appalling that as of this moment not one single reform has been passed in order to prevent wrongful convictions here in New York State, and that many other states also continue to lack them. I believe that it will take a political shakeup to get the needed legislation.
Accordingly, between now and November, I will be compiling information on the positions and stances of various elected officials, and those seeking office, with respect to wrongful convictions. I will not simply be echoing statements that have been made, but will be looking at the
voting records and actions of as many elected officials as possible. I sincerely hope that concerned citizens will take that information into account come November.