ON THE HOT SEAT

A former prosecutor and a former police investigator explain their actions in the Ellen Reasonover case 16 years ago. Their accounts don't square.

After denying he withheld crucial evidence, denying he arranged secret deals with jailhouse snitches, denying he misled a jury and denying he participated in any cover-up, St. Louis County Circuit Judge Steven H. Goldman suggested that maybe someone else had done those things but that he wasn't sure and, in all likelihood, they wouldn't remember, either.

It wasn't the former prosecutor's most convincing performance, certainly unlike the trial in 1983 when Goldman, without physical evidence or eyewitnesses, convinced a jury that a young black woman named Ellen Reasonover was guilty of capital murder.

This time, as an ill-at-ease Goldman tried to account for his actions during an evidentiary hearing, an observer watching the proceedings from the back rows in a federal courtroom leaned forward and whispered, "It's STA time — "save thy ass' time."

Ellen Reasonover
Jennifer Silverberg
Ellen Reasonover

Indeed, during four days of testimony at the hearing last week before Chief U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton, new evidence of possible police and prosecutorial misconduct in the Reasonover case surfaced like dead bodies, one after the other. Among new information floating to the top: secret police tape recordings, memos about sentencing deals, and a would-be snitch who refused to be coerced. Just one day into the hearing, a seemingly exasperated Judge Hamilton asked Stephan D. Hawke, the state's attorney, "Are there any other documents you haven't disclosed? This is a little startling."

The mounting evidence that police and prosecutors may have framed an innocent woman would become even more startling to onlookers as the hearing progressed. For Reasonover, serving a life sentence after being convicted of shooting and killing gas-station attendant James Buckley, 19, in a botched robbery attempt, the hearing is likely her last bid to win a new trial ("Burned," RFT, June 30).

Reasonover, now 42, has always maintained her innocence, saying that she was at the Vickers service station in Dellwood the night of Buckley's murder only to get change and cigarettes. When she heard news accounts of the murder, she called police with information about possible suspects she saw at the station. She identified men from mug shots, but when those suspects produced alibis, police investigators accused her — along with her former boyfriend, Stanley White, and another man named Robert Macintosh — of the crime.

Goldman's evidence in the 1983 trial consisted mainly of the testimonies of two women — Mary Ellen Lyner and Rose Jolliff — who claimed that Reasonover had confessed to them in a holding cell that she had killed Buckley. What jurors and Reasonover's trial lawyers didn't know in 1983 was that there existed at least two secretly taped conversations in which Reasonover maintained her innocence.

One of those key recordings is of Reasonover protesting her innocence to Jolliff in a telephone conversation on Jan. 12, 1983 — five days after the women had been placed in a holding cell together. Reasonover's current lawyers, Cheryl Pilate of Kansas City and Richard Sindel of St. Louis, obtained a copy of the recording just last week.

Jolliff was in jail for writing a number of bad checks, Reasonover because she was a suspect in Buckley's murder.

During Reasonover's trial, Jolliff testified that Reasonover confessed Buckley's murder to her on the day they shared the cell. But the secretly taped phone conversation, which was never disclosed to jurors at the trial, appears to undermine Jolliff's testimony. In the conversation, Reasonover repeatedly denied having had anything to do with the killing. In fact, Reasonover proclaimed her innocence eight times during the call to the woman she had supposedly confessed to five days before. And even though under law the police must give the prosecutor such evidence, and the prosecutor in turn must give it to the defense, the tape was never submitted to Reasonover's attorneys during her trial.

Last week, when asked why the police tape was never submitted, Goldman said he never knew it existed, implying that the police were at fault for never handing it to him.

In 1983, prosecutor Goldman told jurors that Jolliff had no incentive to lie about her testimony — that she was not getting any kind of a deal on her pending felonies in exchange for testifying at Reasonover's trial.

A different story emerged last week.

In December 1982, then-assistant county prosecutor Larry Mooney recommended that Jolliff receive five years' supervised probation for her three pending felony counts. Jolliff's lawyer at the time, Stormy White, testified last week that Mooney's recommendation was "the best I could do at the time" for her client.

But on the same day she testified against Reasonover, Jolliff changed her plea of not guilty to guilty and received six months' unsupervised bench probation, which meant if she stayed out of trouble for six months, her three felonies would never be recorded. Other than having the felonies reduced to misdemeanors, Jolliff couldn't have gotten a better deal.

No one seems to know just who in the prosecutor's office approved the lighter sentence.

"Is that what a person would normally get for three felonies?" Sindel asked White when she took the stand last week.

"No," she replied, adding that she had been on maternity leave at the time and didn't know how Jolliff got the bench probation.

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