By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danielle Marie Mackey
By Lindsay Toler
In fact, she hadn't seen White since the month before, when she called the police on him after he pulled up in the parking lot of her apartment building in a large, dark car and broke the window of her own automobile because of an argument they'd had earlier.
Maybe he was still mad about that. Maybe he was just scared. She was a little worried, too, about being accused of robbing and murdering that young white boy at the Vickers service station on Jan. 2, but she knew the police didn't have any evidence against her and figured they'd hold her a little while and then let her go home.
The fact that White was here now, though, that wasn't a good sign. She hadn't told the police he did it, even when they showed her the awful photographs of the crime scene and accused her and White of beating up 19-year-old James Buckley and then shooting him seven times with a .22-caliber rifle until he was dead. Not even then, looking at those pathetic pictures, had she rolled over on anybody, least of all Stan.
Maybe he was just mad about being hauled in. Maybe he thought she really had told the police he was involved when they pressured her, threatened her with life in prison and showed her those terrible, terrible photos, or maybe, just maybe ...
"Stan?" she asked from her cell.
"Did you rob that Vickers place?"
It was a question she felt she needed to ask. Her own life hadn't exactly been a session in slapstick, but neither she nor Stanley White had ever been convicted of anything before, and robbing and killing a young white boy like that, well, that was something serious.
"Babe, you know I been here but ain't done no shit like that," White said.
She told him she figured as much.
"You know one thing I can't understand?" White asked.
"They, they, they really trippin' and everything, and I ain't did a motherfuckin' thing."
"These motherfuckers is crazy," she assured White, "think you gonna rob and kill a, a young white boy, kill him, take his life."
"You know me better than that, sister."
"Yeah, I know you ain't done no shit like that."
"You know what?" White asked.
"I'm gonna tell you somethin'. If I knew somethin', I would tell the motherfuckers. I don't know shit, and I'm not lyin'."
"I'm tellin' you. I mean, gosh, Stan, you know, if I had somethin' to do with that shit, I'da snitched on you and everybody else that I thought was involved."
But she hadn't. The day after Buckley was found dead on the floor of the Vickers station on West Florissant Avenue, Reasonover called the Dellwood police and told them she'd been at the Laundromat next door that night and had gone to the service window of the station to get change. She said that when she got there, she saw a young black man inside, and it dawned on her that he looked like someone she'd met somewhere before, someone she couldn't quite place. But when she knocked on the window to get his attention and he didn't respond, she told the police, she drove her AMC Hornet down the street to a 7-Eleven to get change there instead.
As she began to pull out of the Vickers parking lot, Reasonover said, she saw a police car cruise by, and because her Hornet was missing a taillight, she waited until it drove past -- she didn't need a ticket, especially because she had been warned about the light earlier.
At the 7-Eleven, Reasonover told police, she saw the same man she saw at the Vickers station, but with two other people -- one in a green army jacket -- in a large, dark car, maybe a Buick or Cadillac, with whitewall tires and another tire on the trunk. She said she didn't think much about it until the next day, when her mother saw a report about Buckley's murder on TV and told her daughter to call the police and tell them what she saw.
Reasonover said she didn't want to call anybody and tell them anything, but after her mother asked, "What if that was one of your brothers who got killed? Wouldn't you want a witness to come forward?" she agreed, but only if she could give the police a fake name so that, in case the man she saw was someone she knew, she wouldn't have to worry about any trouble down the road. The next day, she went into the Dellwood police station to look at mug shots, and when Capt. Dan Chapman asked her for identification, she admitted that she had given a fake name. She then picked out two men from the mug shots who she said resembled the men she saw the night of Buckley's murder.
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.
She recalls the descent when she first became a murder suspect and then the accused, beginning with the fateful night James Buckley was murdered:
On that night, Reasonover says, she waited to put 2-year-old Charmel to bed before she went out to do the laundry. What happened in the next few days and weeks, she says, destroyed the slim faith she had in fair play to begin with.
"When I first went to the police, I told them I couldn't positively identify anybody, because I really didn't get a good look at the guy," Reasonover says of the night she viewed more than 250 mug shots at the Dellwood police station after Buckley's murder. "But they told me, and I remember this to this day, they told me, 'Look at the nose, the eyes -- if anything looks familiar to you, pick him out, and we'll check into it.'
"Well, I picked out a lot of photos. Then they turned some of them over in front of me, and Mr. Chapman, he said, 'That's OK if you can't positively identify them, but just for the record, on the back of these pictures, write that you did positively identify them.' I remember this specifically," Reasonover says as she leans forward in her chair, "because I couldn't spell 'positively,' and I asked him how, and he told me."
That day Reasonover picked out two photos, of men named Isaac Scott and Herman Staples. That same day, another person who was at the Vickers station the night of the murder, Kenneth Main, also described seeing a black man wearing a green army jacket, blue jeans and black boots. Main, in his late 20s at the time and working at the St. Louis County's Sheriff's Department, chose one of the same mug shots Reasonover had picked, the one of Isaac Scott.
But Scott and Staples were in jail on the night of the Vickers robbery, so the next day, Reasonover looked at more mug shots and picked out one of William Love, who later passed a stress test, during which he said he wasn't at the scene. Because of these three mistaken identifications, and because Reasonover's description of the car she saw at the 7-Eleven was similar to that of the car Stanley White drove, Chapman decided to bring White in for questioning as well.
Chapman, like many of the people involved with this story, says he can't comment about the case now because of the federal court hearing, but transcripts from Reasonover's trial in late 1983 quote Chapman as saying he never told Reasonover that she should just pick out any mug shot that looked familiar.
Though that may or may not be so, it is clear that not everyone who was unsure about who they saw that night became a suspect in Buckley's murder.
For instance, White was placed in a lineup for Kenneth Main to view. According to Main's trial testimony, when he looked at the lineup and tried to identify the man he saw at the Vickers station that night, "The first two wasn't him, the third kind of looked like him, but the fourth resembled him pretty much."
The fourth man in the lineup was Stanley White.
"I was pretty positive," Main testified, "but there was something about him that I couldn't say that I was positive that it was the man."
Main then submitted a voluntary statement to the police stating, "Number One and Number Two were not the men I saw at Vicker's. I remember the man having a tall, lean build, like suspect Number Four. Number Three's face somehow reminds me of the man I saw, but I can't be sure. Number Four's build reminds me of the man I saw and his profile reminds me of the man, but I only glanced at him at Vicker's and can't be sure it's him."
Unlike Reasonover, whose fruitless identifications made her and Stanley White suspects, Main was asked to undergo hypnosis the day after viewing the lineup. After the 20-minute hypnosis session with a psychiatrist, Dr. Jon Tek Lum, Main again viewed White in a lineup and positively identified him as the man he saw in the Vickers service station. In a later interview with John Hoogstraten, a private investigator, Main said the detail that "clinched it" for him was that after the hypnosis, when he saw White's profile in the lineup, "the muscles popped out on his jaw."
On the afternoon of Jan. 7, while with her friend Valerie Clark, Reasonover was arrested, and Clark was also brought in for questioning
According to an interview Clark had with Hoogstraten later: "Valerie said the police had them in separate rooms and they kept coming into Valerie's room and saying, 'We know that you know she did it.' At one point Valerie said the police came into her room and said, 'You know, there's a $3,000 reward. If you put her away you can get it.' At another time (Valerie Clark) said that a policeman said, 'You can get $3,000. All you have to do is change your story.'"
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.
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?"
"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.
"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.
But during this trial, the one for Buckley's murder, Lyner also told the jury that Goldman promised he'd recommend to the court that her own sentence be reduced in exchange for her testimony against Reasonover.
Lyner, who was 35 at the time and working as a secretary for the Clayton law firm Swimmer and Associates, told the court that, beginning in 1978, she was convicted for a long string of bad-check and stealing counts. In fact, by the time of her testimony that day, Lyner had been convicted of 12 felonies and one misdemeanor, and when she shared a cell with Reasonover in February of that year, four more felonies were pending in St. Louis County and at least one other felony was pending in the city of St. Louis.
"And basically you are testifying that in exchange for these pending cases you had, in exchange for this testimony, Mr. Goldman recommended that you receive a one-year sentence, is that correct?" one of Reasonover's attorneys, Madeline Franklin, asked.
"That's correct," Lyner said.
The attorney then noted that when Goldman approached Lyner about testifying against Reasonover, Lyner was in the middle of making a deal with the police in exchange for any information she had about drug trafficking at the jail where she was being held.
"Now you have testified that you have had 12 felony convictions and one misdemeanor conviction, and I believe your testimony is you have never served one day in the penitentiary, is that right?" Franklin asked.
"Is that because you have been a snitch and have been going around making deals with prosecutors to stay out of the penitentiary?"
"No," Lyner answered. "This is the first time."
"So you were looking for a way out of the penitentiary, isn't that right?"
"And you were looking for a deal?"
"A deal with the State, with Mr. Goldman, would that be correct, a deal with the police, a deal with anybody, as long as you didn't have to go to the penitentiary?"
"That's right," Lyner said.
Reasonover says she remembered Lyner from the holding cell but never admitted Buckley's murder to her. The fact that Lyner herself admitted to making a deal with Goldman in exchange for her testimony allowed Reasonover a little more hope with the jury.
When Jolliff got up on the stand, however, the landscape of the trial changed dramatically, because Jolliff, 32, previously on probation for mail fraud and passing bad checks, said she hadn't made any deal with Goldman in exchange for her testimony.
Jolliff, who pleaded not guilty on Dec. 10, 1982, to three counts of passing bad checks -- one for $274, one for $207 and a third for two checks written for $83 and $232, all Class C felonies, according to St. Louis City Court records -- was placed in a holding cell with Reasonover on Jan. 7, the same day Reasonover and White's conversation was secretly taped. She later testified that Reasonover confessed the Buckley murder to her.
But she swore to the jury that she'd made no deal with Goldman.
"Did I or anybody else ever offer to make a deal with you in regard to that pending case?" Goldman asked Jolliff on the stand.
Later, Goldman asked again, "Did I or anybody ever promise your lawyer you would get any deal or you would get any kind of deal on it for testifying?"
"Were you ever promised that you would get any kind of recommendation on that case at all, or did I ever promise you anything in that regard?"
Reasonover, who sat watching Jolliff testify, says she remembers feeling, even at that point, that the jury wouldn't convict her. The prosecution had called no witnesses who said they'd seen her at the Vickers that night, had no fingerprints and no murder weapon, and had produced no evidence that she shot James Buckley other than the testimonies of Mary Ellen Lyner and Rose Jolliff.
"I was thinking that they would find me innocent ... and I knew the judge wasn't going to let them frame me and take my whole life," Reasonover says. "I thought everything would be fine, that they would find me not guilty.
"I didn't really take any of it very seriously, you know? I didn't think an innocent person could, you know, get framed. I really didn't."
Among the standard instructions to the jury was, "If the evidence in this case leaves in your mind a reasonable doubt that the Defendant was present at the time and place the offense is alleged to have been committed, then you must find the Defendant not guilty."
When Goldman got up before the jurors for his closing arguments and began telling them what a "cold-blooded killer" and "liar" she was -- "She intended that he die ... took the life of James Buckley ... she tells you these lies ... she is making all this stuff up ... these stories are crazy ... she will kill.... " -- Reasonover says she started crying, because the jurors stared at her as though she were Satan.
Her only hope was that her own attorneys' closing argument would bring them back around: "Ellen Reasonover became an easy way to wrap this case up and get that publicity off the Major Case Squad and off of Dellwood, and they can report to the news media, 'Ah, we have got our killer, we are done, the police work is accomplished,'" Forriss Elliott told them.
"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."
"But you know what?" White asked.
"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 ..."
"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."
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?"
"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."
"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."
"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?"
"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.
"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.'"
At the Chillicothe prison, Reasonover is back at her place across the table. The air conditioning is back on. As she waits for the court to decide her fate, she has had plenty of time to think about where to place the blame.
"I mean, the difference between convicting an innocent person and an innocent person who was framed is that the prosecutor knows the person is innocent, and I believe in my heart of hearts that Mr. Goldman knew I was innocent," she says.