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."
Wrongly accused women can trace their history in the United States to the infamous Salem witch trials in 17th century colonial Massachusetts. Seizures were thought to be a manifestation of a woman possessed by evil spirits.
But even for recent decades, there's no tallying or cataloging of cases where women have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated.
What researchers do know is that the U.S. prison population has doubled over the last two decades, from less than 700,000 in 1989 to about 1.5 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. The number of women in prison has risen every year since 2001 when there were about 93,000 incarcerated women to last year when 113,462 women were counted, the U.S. Justice Department reports.
As the number of incarcerated women increases, so too, the thinking goes, do the ranks of those who are actually innocent.
Marvin Zalman, a criminal justice professor at Wayne State University, estimates 10,000 people are wrongfully convicted each year across the country, representing 1 percent of criminal cases. A 2004 study from the University of California Irvine suggested that about 7,500 innocent men or women could have been convicted of serious crimes — including murder, rape, aggravated assault and arson — in 2000.
But no credible data exists on how many of those could be women.
Some researchers, though, have analyzed the known cases of women's exonerations, which are not many but continue to increase. Just 25 women were among roughly 700 cases of known wrongful convictions in 2005 as cataloged by Northwestern University's Center for Wrongful Convictions, according to published research.
Wisconsin researchers Mitch Ruesink and Marvin Free examined dozens of cases of wrongly convicted women in the United States and reached several conclusions. First, the women were most often convicted for murder or child abuse. Second, while the most common reason for men's wrongful convictions was eyewitness error, the most prevalent problem for women was unethical police and prosecutors. An added cause of women's wrongful convictions was erroneous testimony from alleged child victims, a tough piece of the case for juries to overlook and acquit.
"A lot of circumstantial evidence results in these women being put behind bars," says Jennifer Cobbina, assistant professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University. "We sometimes like to think that this cannot happen to us, that this can only happen to certain people in certain situations, but it can happen to anyone."
Imprisoned women lose parental rights and eventually custody of their children if they are behind bars more than a few months, Cobbina says. In addition, they may have to deal with the inherent loss, grief and guilt of feeling they should have prevented their children's harm.
"That grief is still waiting for you and you still have to deal with it," Caldwell says. "It's different because of who they are accused of hurting."
One of Caldwell's clients was convicted because she "should have known" her husband was going to harm her child. "Men never get charged with the 'you knew or should have known' the kids were going to get hurt. Women do. We hold them to a higher standard," Caldwell says. "I think it's bullshit, frankly, but a lot of women get accused of that."
Inside and out
Though prisoners — men and women — have access to prison law libraries and can work on their own cases, their fights for innocence are handled by devoted, sometimes pro bono or university-based attorneys, law students, investigators and other advocates.
"Women for some reason get complacent once they get in prison and they don't have that fight that the men have to research and fight and sue and whatever the case might be for better conditions, whatever they're fighting for," says Brown. "They need some support."
That support can provide new evidence, the uncovering of inconsistencies or even malfeasance in police investigations and prosecutorial misconduct and other reasons for wrongful convictions, from jailhouse snitches to bad defense lawyering.
"If you look at the causes of wrongful conviction, they apply equally to women as they do to men. It's just, unfortunately, given the nature of DNA exonerations, women are not going to be able to be benefited by it as much," says Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York. "It's just more difficult to exonerate because we don't have DNA evidence to test."
Neufeld and Barry Scheck founded the Innocence Project in 1992. Since then, the project's work has exonerated 261 men using DNA evidence — identifying genetic markers found in blood and semen. Nearly all of the Innocence Project's cases have involved rape charges or a dual rape-murder scenario where the perpetrator was a man and the DNA evidence was made available to defendants.
"Obviously you're not going to be having semen evidence to exonerate a woman," Neufeld says.
The project's efforts have led to exonerations for four women. In those cases the women were co-defendants with men for rape and murder.
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."