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If you've ever wondered about the wisdom behind that old saw "Better late than never," perhaps you should ask Ellen Reasonover. A federal-court ruling issued Monday triggered a chain of events that resulted in Reasonover being released from jail by Tuesday afternoon, after 16 years of incarceration.
Reasonover has been behind bars following her conviction for the murder of James Buckley at a Dellwood gas station on Jan. 2, 1983. On Monday afternoon, she got a call from her lawyer, Richard Sindel of St. Louis, telling her that Chief U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton had issued a ruling that essentially says that Reasonover had received an unfair trial, that evidence supporting her case of innocence was never presented to the jury, and that she deserves at least a new trial. The ruling followed a weeklong evidentiary hearing last month in which Sindel and his co-counsel, Sheryl Pilate, made their case for Reasonover's innocence.
"It's a very powerful ruling," Sindel told us Tuesday morning after digesting the 75-page order issued by Judge Hamilton. "Almost every point that we raised, she believed that our evidence was sufficient to affirm those points it's almost as if we didn't lose a thing. We got favorable findings on all the issues we raised in court."
And those were some serious issues. Chief among them were that the prosecution had failed to let the jury or Reasonover's defense lawyers know about the existence of at least two secretly taped conversations with Reasonover one between her and her ex-boyfriend while they were in neighboring jail cells, the other a phone conversation between Rose Jolliff, a former cell mate, and Reasonover in which she repeatedly denied having anything to do with Buckley's murder. Instead, Reasonover was convicted based on the testimony of two jailhouse snitches Jolliff and Mary Ellen Lyner who had been offered deals of leniency for their crimes in exchange for testifying that Reasonover had confessed to them in jail that she murdered Buckley. To make matters worse, the jury wasn't told about the deal that Jolliff had and so placed a lot of credibility on her testimony ("Burned," RFT, June 30).
The second piece of good news for Reasonover came Tuesday afternoon, when Missouri Attorney General Jeremiah "Jay" Nixon, decided, quite wisely, not to appeal Judge Hamilton's ruling to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Which left one last hurdle on the way to Reasonover's freedom the decision of St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch on whether to pursue charges against Reasonover or dismiss them. Again, wisely, McCulloch chose to dismiss the charges. But not without some pissy prosecutorial comments.
"She's walking away from a murder," McCulloch told us late Tuesday. "She did 16 years on it, but that's little comfort to anybody, frankly." McCulloch went on to add that he had made his decision "very reluctantly." As for the fact that the credibility of Jolliff and Lyner was seriously in question and that Judge Hamilton had agreed on that point, McCulloch said he disagreed with the federal judge. "In reality, what we're talking about is (Reasonover) saying, "I didn't do it.' And if a defendant saying "I didn't do it' is evidence of innocence, then we'd certainly solve our overcrowding problem in any penitentiary 'cause everybody there says they didn't do it." Reminded that all the prosecution had was two convicted felons saying, in essence, "She told me she did it,' McCulloch acknowledged that, but said he deferred the judgment to the jury that heard the case the same jury that didn't hear about the deals and the prior convictions of the two snitches.
Notwithstanding McCulloch's personal views, by Tuesday evening Ellen Reasonover walked out of prison a free woman.
The interesting thing to watch now will be the fate of the man most responsible for screwing up the last 16 years of Reasonover's life: then-prosecutor Steven H. Goldman (now a St. Louis County circuit judge), who had pressed for Reasonover's execution. For a refreshing change, we get to watch his fate. Stay tuned.
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