Burned

Ellen Reasonover has served 16 years of a life sentence for murder. But new evidence -- a secret tape and a forgotten memo -- suggests that the prosecution may have committed the real crime.

But the two men Reasonover picked out were in jail the night of the crime, so the police asked Reasonover to look at more photos, and she picked one of a man she knew named William Love. But Love passed a psychological-stress test administered to him by the police, so Chapman figured Reasonover was trying to throw suspicion elsewhere. She was arrested as a suspect in Buckley's murder. Having used a fake name didn't help her case very much, and because the car she described seeing William Love in at the 7-Eleven -- a big, dark car with whitewalls and a wheel on the back -- was similar to the car Stanley White drove the night he smashed her windshield, they hauled White into jail, too.

"It sure looked like William Love's ass," Reasonover told White when he was put in the cell next to hers. "Sure the fuck did. But if I ever do see that dude again with the green army jacket on and he's out there, man, I ain't gonna tell them motherfuckers shit. I was trying to help them."

"If you seen somebody, baby, you tell them," White said.
"I told them who I thought I seen, but they don't believe me."
The police -- and, later, Reasonover's prosecutors -- didn't believe her even after they listened to the hourlong conversation between Reasonover and White that day in the Dellwood jail, taped secretly with a recorder hidden in their cells.

In fact, the tape was considered so lacking in evidentiary value, as prosecutors later claimed, that it was somehow "misplaced," and neither Reasonover's defense attorneys nor the jurors at her trial knew that it existed. Indeed, the tape -- and other recently discovered evidence allegedly withheld by prosecutors -- wouldn't be seen or heard for another 16 years, long after Reasonover was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to prison for the rest of her life.

She was convicted in late 1983, despite the fact that there were no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence -- no murder weapon, no fingerprints, not one strand of hair. Instead, she was convicted because two jailhouse snitches -- who later received light sentences for their crimes -- told the jury Reasonover confessed to them that she killed Buckley. The prosecutor, Steven H. Goldman, acknowledged in court that one of the snitches was promised a reduced sentence in exchange for her testimony. The other, Reasonover's attorneys now allege, was also offered a deal that was kept from the jury -- just like the secretly taped conversation.

But now, 16 years later, Chief U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton has granted Reasonover's request for an evidentiary hearing at which the tape -- and other evidence Reasonover's attorneys say should have been presented to the trial jury -- is being examined. The hearing began Monday.

One of Reasonover's attorneys, Cheryl Pilate of Kansas City, argued in her filing for the hearing: "Her case in fact provides a stunning example of how the suppression of exculpatory evidence and repeated prosecutorial misconduct can lead to the conviction of someone who is totally innocent."

The prosecutor in question, Goldman, who is now a St. Louis County circuit judge, did not respond to our request for an interview.

"Lemme ask you, can these motherfuckers do anything?"
"Hell, yeah, they do it all the time, Stan, lock motherfuckers up for shit they didn't do."

"You know, they need to call in somebody special an' check into this shit."
"I'm tellin' you. A specialist."

Ellen Reasonover sits across the table in the Chillicothe Correctional Center, in northwest Missouri, as her caseworker paces back and forth across the room. She doesn't seem to notice, even though the caseworker stops occasionally, folds his arms across his chest, and sighs. The air conditioning is out as well -- across a yard fenced in barbed wire, the repairman can be seen, working on a distant roof -- but the 41-year-old woman at the table doesn't seem too concerned about the heat, either, focusing instead on the upcoming hearing in St. Louis. It may be her last chance to get out of this place.

Like many of the inmates around her, Reasonover's life before confinement wasn't a twilight walk across manicured lawns. After dropping out of Soldan High School in the 10th grade, she received her GED and went on to work as a cashier at a Vickers service station. She dated two men who were later found shot to death -- one on a street corner, the other handcuffed in a vacant lot -- and both of her brothers went to prison, one for killing his girlfriend and the other for robbing a Schnucks supermarket. In 1980, Reasonover gave birth to her daughter, Charmel, and two years later, while working in a massage parlor for a month before the holidays so she could buy Christmas presents, she married a man in the U.S. Air Force.

At Chillicothe, Reasonover keeps mostly to herself and doesn't commune much with the other women here. Because she has trouble sleeping, she works the prison's night shift, cleaning toilets and mopping floors; when she is around the others, she says, she tries to keep peace. One prison employee who oversees her notes, "Despite all the negativity in this place, and there's quite a lot of it, Ellen has stayed pretty much positive, pretty much unchanged." She's soft-spoken but doesn't seem shy or reserved. Her eyes throw off the occasional artless glances of a very young girl but don't wander the walls or the floors looking for an escape. She repeatedly apologizes for words she can't pronounce or names she can't remember.

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