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.

"Now, if they had no eyewitnesses, if they got no fingerprints, if they have got no gun, if they have got no other way to put Ellen in this thing, how do they do it? They bring you ... con artists who say, 'I was in a cell with her. She told me all about it, everything you need to know. Just ask me, because in exchange for telling you anything you need to know' -- what is that TV program? Let's Make a Deal? You know, the emcee is up on the stage, and he says, 'We are going to make a deal. Rose Jolliff, come on the stage and let's make a deal. Mary Lyner, come up on the stage and let's make a deal.' And of course, they had reason to come up on that stage and try to make a deal with Mr. Goldman."

In rebuttal, Goldman told the jury that though he might have made a deal with Lyner, he offered Jolliff nothing, nothing at all. That apparently was enough. Soon after that, the jury returned its verdict: Ellen Reasonover was guilty of capital murder.

That wasn't enough for Goldman. He then asked for the death penalty. "Ellen Reasonover realizes, if she does not get the death penalty, that she is going to go to the penitentiary, gets meals, gets a minimum wage, access to a library and recreation, and for Ellen Reasonover, that isn't the answer," Goldman told the jury. "You know what she deserves. No one but an Ellen Reasonover would think that James Buckley didn't deserve to die. Somewhere in Ellen Reasonover's life she decided that killing a person is like taking a drink of water for her. That's what it means for her."

Reasonover says she sat in a daze. She was numb. She was no longer fighting for her innocence; she was fighting for her life. As Goldman told the jurors that she'd just as soon kill someone as take a drink of water, Reasonover says she turned to James Buckley's family behind her and mouthed, through tears, "I didn't do it."

The jury deliberated for three hours but came to no agreement on a sentence. The judge later sentenced Reasonover to life in prison. If she gets no reprieve and if she behaves herself in prison, she has a chance of getting out on parole in 2033, at the age of 75.

But there was hope, Reasonover was told, because the evidence was weak and the appeals process lay ahead. Besides, this sort of thing only happened in the movies, she thought, and in the end, when justice was served, the innocent got to go home.

"What was you thinkin' when you came in here and looked at me all mean and shit?" Reasonover asked. "What the fuck was on your mind?"

"I don't know, baby," White said, laughing, "motherfuckers tellin' me about the gas chamber ..."

"What, you think I had, what?"
"I don't know, baby, I ..."
"I know you knew I couldn'ta told on you or nothin', 'cause I ain't got nothin' to tell ... that motherfucker tryin' to get me to lie. I say, 'What the fuck you want me to do, just lie on the man and say he did somethin'?' Well, I say, 'You're wrong, baby, I ain't gonna lie on no motherfucker, say somethin' that man didn't do.'"

"If it were true, baby, you know, why, I don't blame you if you tell," White said. "You know that?"

"Yeah," Reasonover replied, "if it was the truth, I, I'da beat you and then told."

They laughed.
"But you know what?" White asked.
"What?"

"I'm tellin' you .... I ain't never been in no shit this motherfuckin' deep."

"I'm tellin' you, boy," she answered. "It hurt me when I heard it happened, too, cause it happened around from my corner, and plus they showed me those pictures, boy, and that really fucked me up. I told them, 'Hey ..."

"Those motherfuckers."
"It don't make me no motherfuckin' difference, he could'a been red, white, black, blue, he's a young boy and he got killed."

Like most people traversing the unknown terrain of the judicial system, Reasonover followed her appeals attorney's lead, figuring that he, an NAACP lawyer from New York City, would find the right way out. But the appeal fell flat when the right paperwork wasn't filed on time, and Reasonover says she felt almost as devastated as when she first heard her verdict.

Then Reasonover started writing the letters -- letters to the pope, two presidents, their wives, their children, Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela, state legislators, reporters and just about anybody else she could get an address for to tell them she was innocent.

Then she read a magazine article about Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit group in Princeton, N.J., that works to free innocent prisoners.

"I wrote to them that I was innocent and would they help me, too?" Reasonover says. "They wrote me back and told me they had a full caseload, but I kept on writing; I wrote every week until I think they got tired of getting letters from me -- I was like pleading, pleading, pleading with them -- and they finally got in touch with my mom and asked her to send them the transcripts. Then they agreed to help me."

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