Appeals court orders release of woman whose murder conviction was overturned after 43 years in prison

Appeals court orders release of woman whose murder conviction was overturned after 43 years in prison

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — An appeals court has ordered the release of a Missouri woman whose murder conviction was overturned after she spent 43 years in prison, but the state attorney general is still trying to keep her behind bars while the case is reviewed.

Monday’s decision by a panel of appeals court judges comes after a judge ruled that Sandra Hemme The victim’s lawyers had established “clear and convincing evidence” of her “actual innocence.” Judge Ryan Horsman said on June 14 that she should be released within 30 days. unless prosecutors decide to retry her.

The appeals court granted Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey’s request to review Horsman’s decision, but asked Horsman to set bail conditions in the meantime and release her.

The attorney general’s office, which almost always opposes wrongful conviction claims, then asked the appeals court to reconsider its decision, saying the court had not given them enough time to argue against her release. Bailey’s office also argued that Hemme was sentenced decades ago to 12 years in prison for assault, and that she would begin serving that sentence now. Her lawyers responded Tuesday that keeping her incarcerated longer would be a “draconian consequence.”

Hemme, now 64, is serving a life sentence in a northeast Kansas City prison after being convicted twice of murdering library employee Patricia Jeschke. She is now the longest-serving wrongfully imprisoned woman in the United States, according to her legal team at the Innocence Project.

After careful consideration, Horsman discovered that Hemme was sedated and in a “malleable mental state” when investigators repeatedly interviewed her at a psychiatric hospital. Police ignored evidence pointing to a discredited colleague who died in 2015, and the prosecution was not informed of FBI findings that could have exonerated her, so they were never disclosed until after her trials.

At her trial, the prosecutor acknowledged four decades later that nothing linked her to the crime except her confession, which followed multiple contradictory statements, the judge noted.

His lawyers described his final confession in a court filing as “often monosyllabic responses to leading questions.”

“She is the victim of a manifest injustice,” Horsman concluded in his 118-page decision. “The Court finds that the totality of the evidence supports a claim of actual innocence.”

But Bailey then looked for a delay in Hemme’s release to allow for review by an appeals court, saying she poses a risk to her safety or the safety of others, citing an assault in the 1990s on a prison employee and statements she made decades ago about enjoying violence, and arguing that the evidence she presented is not “newly discovered,” so “Hemme has not met the standard of actual innocence in law.”

The Buchanan County District Attorney’s Office, which tried the case, did not respond to requests for comment.

Hemme was arrested a few weeks after the death of Jeschke, a 31-year-old librarian who lived in St. Joseph, Missouri. After Jeschke missed work on Nov. 13, 1980, her worried mother climbed through an apartment window and discovered her daughter’s naked body on the floor, surrounded by blood, her hands tied behind her back, a telephone cord and a pair of pantyhose wrapped around her neck. A knife was under her head.

These details and others were released to the media by St. Joseph Police Chief Robert Hayes as the crime spawned a massive investigation.

Meanwhile, the department took only a cursory look at Michael Holman, a now-discredited St. Joseph police officer who was under investigation for insurance fraud and burglaries, and closed that investigation after evidence cast doubt on his alibi. Holman’s plea deal included a promise not to prosecute him for other “criminal matters currently under investigation.” He died in 2015, according to the judge’s findings.

Hemme wasn’t on anyone’s radar until she reappeared more than two weeks after the murder in the home of a nurse who had treated her, carrying a knife and refusing to leave. Police took her back to St. Joseph’s Hospital, the latest in a series of hospitalizations that began when she started hearing voices at age 12, and she was heavily sedated.

It turned out that Hemme had left the hospital and hitchhiked out of town a few hours before Jeschke was last seen alive. She showed up that evening at her parents’ house, more than 100 miles to the east.

Police interviewed the original driver who provided his alibi, but it was not disclosed to the jury, the judge found.

Investigators began questioning her while the psychiatric hospital was treating her with antipsychotic medications that triggered involuntary muscle spasms. She complained that her eyes were rolling back in her head. Investigators said Hemme appeared “mentally confused” and unable to fully understand their questions, her lawyers argued.

Hemme eventually pleaded guilty to murder to avoid the death penalty, and after her plea was rejected on appeal, she was convicted again in 1985 after a one-day trial. The prosecutor told Horsman that police had never shared exculpatory evidence, including FBI tests that ruled out any connection between Hemme and evidence at the crime scene.

Police also did not share key evidence pointing to their colleague, although his van was seen outside the victim’s apartment, he tried to use her credit card and her earrings were found in his home.

When Holman could not be ruled out as the source of a palm print found on a television antenna cable found next to the victim’s body, the FBI requested clearer prints. Police did not follow up, however. An FBI report also revealed that a hair found on the victim’s bed sheet had “microscopic characteristics similar to Holman’s hair samples and could not be eliminated as a source.”

Jurors never heard those details because police never shared them with prosecutors, the judge found.

“This court finds that the evidence demonstrates that Ms. Hemme’s statements to police are so unreliable and that the evidence pointing to Michael Holman as the perpetrator of the crime is so objective and probative that no reasonable juror would find Ms. Hemme guilty,” Horsman concluded.

The judge also noted that police showed Hemme photos of the crime scene and other details that a prosecutor later falsely told jurors only the killer could know. Chief Hayes — who died in 2010 after serving time for manslaughter — was also unusually involved, the judge noted, participating in the questioning of the victim’s father as he described buying a pair of gold horseshoe earrings for his daughter.

The fact that these earrings were found in Holman’s home is another fact the jury never heard.