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.

Earlier in the week, when Reasonover first came to the police, she was given a polygraph test, which she passed. After her arrest, Reasonover was given a second test, which she failed.

"I took the test, and they say I was lyin'," Reasonover told White that day. "'Don't give me that bullshit, talkin' 'bout you ain't gonna see your daughter no more. Your daughter see you, she be 50 years old and you be 100.'"

She tried to laugh it off.
"That ain't funny," White said.
"I know."

Soon after Reasonover's taped conversation with Stanley White, in which they both denied killing Buckley, several other women, including an undercover policewoman who was wired, talked with Reasonover in jail, and during the conversations Reasonover maintained her innocence. One cellmate, Marquita Butler, said in a later interview with Hoogstraten, "In all the time that Ellen was in that cell with us that night, I never heard her confess to doing any kind of murder or robbery. As a matter of fact ... she was convinced she was going home, because she didn't do anything wrong. She was convinced they would let her go home soon."

After Butler was released, she told Hoogstraten, the police came to her house: "They wanted me to say I heard Ellen admit to killing someone at the Vickers station. The police told me they'd give me money if I'd testify to that. They offered me a reward.

"I was desperate for money then," Butler said, "The police gave me information I needed to lie, and I started to feed it back to them. But finally I caught myself. I told myself it would be wrong for me to lie about Ellen. The police were very, very angry with me."

In an earlier 1984 interview with reporters from the Washington Post -- who also interviewed five other cellmates who said they never heard Reasonover confess -- Butler told the newspaper what she later told Hoogstraten. And Dan Chapman told the Post that he never coerced Butler or anyone else into lying about Reasonover.

The next day, both White and Reasonover were released for lack of any evidence tying them to Buckley's murder. One month later, though, three people -- two men and one woman -- robbed a Sunoco service station on Olive Boulevard. According to published reports, two attendants described the female robber as dark-complected, weighing 150 pounds and standing 5-foot-10, with short, curly hair. The next day, when police showed them both mug shots, including one of Reasonover -- who had light skin and straight, shoulder-length hair and weighed about 135 pounds -- one attendant positively identified her; the other attendant could not.

The police were once again knocking on Reasonover's door. "After they took me, I never went home again," she says.

"Them motherfuckers," White said. "Hey, you know what they'll do?"
"What?"
"They, they, they'll trick you and shit. They gonna lie to you and tell you somethin', and you know the motherfuckers be lyin' to you. They some slick motherfuckers."

"Motherfuckers lyin'," Reasonover said.
"Why they do shit like that?"
"I don't know. I don't know."

When Rose Jolliff took the stand at Ellen Reasonover's trial in late 1983, she was asked by the prosecutor, Steven Goldman, whether anybody else in the courtroom was with her in jail earlier that year, on Jan. 7. "Yes, there was," Jolliff said, pointing toward Reasonover, seated with her attorneys. "Ellen ... the lady with the blue on."

Every day, for 10 months that she was in jail, Reasonover says, she expected to be released for lack of evidence in Buckley's murder. After all, White had been released for lack of evidence, and if he was her supposed accomplice, and if no one saw her at the Vickers station that night, and if there was no physical evidence linking her to the crime, then surely she'd be going home soon, too.

"Now, she had some conversation with you after she came into the cell?" Goldman asked Jolliff.

"Yes."
"What did she tell you?"
"She told me, she asked me had I heard about the Vickers Station robbery, murder. And I said I heard about it a little, but not very much.... She said that she had been the one that had did the Vickers Station robbery and murder, and she went on to say how it was done and how it was supposed to have been."

"Did she say how they went about doing it and what, if anything, did she say about this?" Goldman asked.

"She said she was supposed to, someone was supposed to have went up to the window, one of the guys, to distract the boy at the window and something supposedly went wrong. She was supposed to have went in, but something went wrong. So when something supposedly went wrong, she had to shoot him."

Reasonover says now that when Jolliff took the stand that day, she realized she was being framed. Earlier, another witness, a woman named Mary Ellen Lyner, testified that she, like Jolliff, heard Reasonover's confession in a jail cell she shared with Reasonover, after Reasonover's arrest for the Sunoco robbery in February. During that trial, held during the summer, Lyner testified -- as she did in the Buckley murder trial -- that Reasonover told her she'd shot Buckley. Because of the Sunoco attendant's positive identification of her and because of Lyner's testimony, Reasonover was sentenced to seven years in prison for the Sunoco robbery.

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