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.

"John Hoogstraten contacts me and says, 'I've got this big stack of stuff. Do you want to look at it?'" Sindel explains. "As I'm thumbing through it, it becomes apparent that part of the information is from a public defender's file, and then I see this memorandum."

The memo was a note handwritten by Stormy White, the public defender who represented Rose Jolliff, one of the two women who testified against Reasonover during the 1983 trial. When Jolliff testified in court that Reasonover had admitted Buckley's murder to her, Jolliff also swore that she had made no deal with the prosecutor, Goldman, in exchange for her testimony.

And Goldman told the court, "There isn't any evidence, and I will state to the Court now, she was never promised anything.... She was never promised anything and so she testified."

Goldman even stressed to the jurors in his closing argument that whereas Mary Ellen Lyner was given a deal in exchange for her testimony against Reasonover, the jurors could rely on Jolliff, who had "no reason to be lying."

But more than 16 years later, the memo in Sindel's hand, the one written by Jolliff's public defender back in 1983, indicated a completely different story:

"Rose Jolliff is going to be a witness in a capital murder case that Steve Goldman is trying," the memo states. "The State deposed her ... and is going to pay her expenses to testify in the trial.... After she testifies, she is going to plead guilty to this case and be given probation. The details of the plea can be worked out after she testifies. The state does not want to allow (Reasonover's defense attorney) to bring up any kind of deal that might have been made in Rose's case. I have been assured by Steve Goldman that the state isn't going to burn her, that she will receive probation."

Several other memos written by Jolliff's attorney, included in Pilate and Sindel's filings, indicate that after Jolliff testified against Reasonover, not only would she only receive probation but that any outstanding warrants against her would be dropped.

In fact, this did happen. The day of Reasonover's trial, Jolliff received six months of unsupervised probation for her three pending felony counts, and the jury knew nothing about it.

As Sindel sees it: "The memo basically says that 'We want to do this after she testifies, so we don't have to disclose it to the other side, but don't worry, I won't burn you.' Then, after she testifies, she gets six months' unsupervised probation, so basically all she has to do is not get arrested for six months and she's done -- there's no conviction, and that's almost unheard-of. It's almost tantamount to innocence."

As Pilate stated to Judge Hamilton in her request for a hearing: "The prosecution not only failed to disclose this deal, but actively misled the jury about the inducements offered to Jolliff for her story." Moreover, she wrote: "Had the state produced the tape to Ms. Reasonover's trial counsel, and had the tape been played at trial, it is highly likely that the jury would have acquitted Ms. Reasonover."

"I am innocent," Reasonover says from across the table at the Chillicothe prison. "One day, I asked one of my attorneys, 'Why me?' He just said, 'Why anyone, Ellen, why anyone?'"

Reasonover leaves the room, followed by her caseworker, to get a drink of water. Outside the grated windows, women in gray uniforms walk slowly from building to building, heads down, enveloped in vapors of heat. The repairman on the roof has disappeared

By the time Reasonover heard about the withheld tape and the memo indicating Jolliff's deal, Mary Ellen Lyner had committed suicide, then-Gov. John Ashcroft had appointed Steven Goldman to a circuit judgeship, Rose Jolliff had moved to South Bend, Ind. (where court records show she racked up more bad-check-writing charges), her daughter had reached adulthood without a mother, and bumper stickers were showing up around St. Louis reading, "Free Ellen Reasonover!"

"Everything was wrong about that trial," says state Rep. Betty Thompson (D-St. Louis), who adds that if Reasonover isn't granted a new trial, she will ask Gov. Mel Carnahan to step in and grant her clemency. "I will ask the Missouri Black Caucus to stand behind my request, because if we all work together, justice might prevail. It needs to prevail."

Likewise, Jamala Rogers, chairwoman of the Organization for Black Struggle, asks how a woman who tried to fulfill her civic responsibility by going to the police with information about a crime could end up the victim of a crime instead.

"In our wildest nightmares, we never imagined it would go on this long," Rogers says. "Why was she selected to satisfy the whims of a prosecutor who seemed hell-bent on making her the scapegoat? It's because justice comes in different packages, especially for poor people or people of color. This is not an anomaly. There are countless Ellen Reasonovers out there who don't have an advocate.

"And this case has had a chilling effect," Rogers adds. "When you talk with most black people and ask them why they don't want to cooperate with the police, they say, 'Look what happened to Ellen Reasonover.'"

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