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.

Then, in 1996, an investigator from the organization made an astounding discovery when he interviewed Kenneth Main, one of the witnesses at Reasonover's trial. The investigator found that Main had inadvertently heard portions of a tape recorded by the Dellwood police of Reasonover having a conversation in a jail cell with Stanley White. The investigator also found that Reasonover's trial attorneys were never told it existed. They had never heard it, and neither had the jurors.

Though they didn't know what was on the recording yet, Centurion Ministries reasoned that the tape was evidence that should have been submitted during the trial and asked two attorneys, Cheryl Pilate of Kansas City and Richard Sindel of St. Louis, to pursue another appeal.

Pilate, the lead attorney, said that when she learned about the trial -- a two-snitch case with no physical evidence and no eyewitnesses -- and then learned about the secret tape, she decided it was a weak, if not wrongful, conviction and took on the case. "It is an opportunity to do justice for a person who was wrongfully convicted and for whom the system failed," Pilate says.

Years later, Reasonover says, when she heard the taped conversation between her and White, the memory of that day flooded back to her in waves.

"You know what, Ellen?"
"What?"
"I'm gonna tell you something. I don't give a fuck what they say, man, I'm speakin' the truth of what I know."

"Hell, yeah."
"I know I ain't did nothin'."
"Them motherfuckers crazy," she heard herself say. "Fuck, I'm gonna rob, motherfuck and take a young boy's life for much as I hate these motherfuckers be gettin' killed and that. Shit."

"I'm gonna tell you something," White said. "I'm all right, but I ain't about shit like that."

"I ain't gonna motherfuckin' do that."
"I mean, they just want some motherfucker for this case."
"Hell, yeah. The want somebody black, too." Reasonover yawned. "Wish the fuck they'd come for me. I'm ready to go home."

Later, she said: "Then they had to go and show me that little white boy's picture. That just really fucked me up."

"Did it?"
"Yeah. They showed me that shit. He looked all pitiful layin' down there. I said, 'Man, whoever killed him, that was cold. That was really cold.' Did they show it to you, too?"

"Mm-hmm."
"I said, 'You can take that bullshit out my face. I ain't gonna look at that bullshit.' Comin' up there to ask me, 'Why ya ain't gonna look at the pictures?' Said, 'For what? I done seen too many motherfuckers be goin' off dead, and I ain't about ready to see no more.'"

It was the last time Ellen Reasonover talked to Stanley White.
As Pilate wrote in a motion to the U.S. Eastern District Court in St. Louis, requesting that Chief Judge Jean Hamilton grant an evidentiary hearing: "The tape -- made without the knowledge of either participant -- captures the candid and spontaneous exchange between two individuals who were bewildered, upset, and ignorant of the crimes for which they were arrested."

Sindel explains that under Missouri's criminal-discovery rules, the tape, no matter what was on it, should have been disclosed by the prosecution. "The rules state specifically that all statements of the defendant have to be turned over, all tape recordings have to be turned over, and then any material that is exculpatory has to be turned over," Sindel says. "And it wasn't."

Pilate further argues that withholding the tape from jurors violated Reasonover's constitutional right to a fair trial and due process, because under Missouri law, any information that tends to negate a defendant's guilt must be disclosed.

The state argued back that even though the only people aware of the tapes' existence were the police and the prosecution, Reasonover's defense was actually at fault itself for not using it, because Reasonover "was aware of the January 7, 1983 conversation she had with White, because she had the conversation with White."

In addition -- among other things such as, "At the penalty phase of her trial, (Reasonover) testified that she did not shoot and kill the victim, but she offered no theory about who did" -- the state argued that the tape did not support Reasonover's claims of innocence, because "pretrial protests of innocence are common and are inadmissable hearsay."

Pilate questioned why they had made the secret tape in the first place, then. "In fact the very point of this sort of clandestine recording is the notion that two friends held together in jail would likely engage in a candid and unvarnished discussion of their situation," Pilate stated in her motion.

For Reasonover, hope again surfaced, but the appeal went into high gear six months ago, when, almost by accident, Reasonover's attorneys stumbled across a previously undisclosed piece of information that seemed to indicate that the prosecutor, Steven Goldman, might have misled the jury on another crucial matter.

In December 1998, Sindel received a letter from private investigator John Hoogstraten, who had accumulated an extensive file of evidence for Reasonover's appeals attorney, none of which was ever used because the appeal failed.

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