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

Jul 7, 1999 at 4:00 am
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."

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.

Mooney said he didn't order the bench probation for Jolliff, either, and didn't know who had.

And Goldman told the court that he had given Jolliff "no deal" for her testimony and wasn't aware that anyone else had given her one.

In post-trial transcripts, Goldman denied ever promising Jolliff a deal for her testimony. "It was the same sentence anyone else would have gotten," the transcripts show Goldman saying.

Several witnesses testified that receiving bench probation for three felonies is extremely unusual. Prominent defense attorney Arthur Margulis, called by the state as a character witness for Goldman, told Sindel during cross-examination that he couldn't recall ever hearing of someone getting bench probation for three felonies.

"Would you suspect that that person got a deal?" Sindel asked.

"I think it would be self-evident," Margulis said.

And earlier this year, Sindel and Pilate found a long-forgotten memo written by White back in 1983, stating that Goldman had called her about Jolliff, that Jolliff was testifying in Reasonover's case, that they wouldn't actually make a deal with her until after the trial so that Reasonover's lawyers couldn't bring it up before the jury, and that Goldman promised not to "burn" Jolliff in the process.

White testified that she didn't remember much about the memo but surmised that it didn't mean what it seemed to mean. Goldman acknowledged that he had in fact talked to White before Reasonover's trial but said he didn't remember much about the conversation.

As for Jolliff, she isn't talking. Called as a witness last week, she invoked her Fifth Amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination.

"I never asked"

The taped conversation between Jolliff and Reasonover wasn't the only attempt by police to get Reasonover to confess to Buckley's murder. An undercover policewoman tried to get Reasonover to confess to her in jail and was unsuccessful. Then there was the hourlong tape of a conversation between Reasonover and her former boyfriend, Stanley White, when the two were arrested as suspects and placed in adjacent cells on Jan. 7, 1983.

Goldman testified last week that the police misinformed him about that secretly taped conversation in which Reasonover and White are heard discussing the murder, mystified about why the police think they did it. That tape wasn't given to Reasonover's defense attorneys, and so the jury never heard it, either.

"Were you aware of the tape?" Sindel asked Goldman last week.

"Some police officer in a very brief conversation ... told me that they had a tape between Stanley White and Ellen Reasonover in which, I understood, they were complaining about being in jail. I also had the impression that they taped over it or destroyed it or something like that," Goldman said. "What they were telling me was that it wasn't admissible."

"Did you try to find out why it had been destroyed or taped over?" Sindel asked.

"I never asked," Goldman said.

Several weeks ago, Patricia Lynch, a producer and writer for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, which is broadcast by PBS, interviewed Goldman about the Reasonover case. Lynch says Goldman told her that he had only learned about the tape's contents "recently" and that the tape wasn't produced at the trial because of a "cataloguing error" committed by the Dellwood police.

But Dan Chapman, commander of the Major Case Squad investigating Buckley's murder in 1983 and now Dellwood's chief of police, testified last week that everything of evidentiary value — including the taped conversation between White and Reasonover — was turned over to Goldman.

"Would it be fair to say that statements made by a suspect are important and that they can often be used to help determine their guilt or innocence?" Sindel asked Chapman.


"And in part you wanted to preserve this conversation (between White and Reasonover) in case it pointed to Ms. Reasonover's guilt?"


"Did you tell anybody that you had destroyed the tape?"

"No, sir."

"To the best of your knowledge, you gave it to Mr. Goldman?"

"We gave everything to the prosecutor's office."

In 1985, Reasonover's lawyers filed an appeal claiming in part that the tape should have been disclosed at her trial. Gary Gardner, the assistant attorney general who represented the state during the direct appeal, testified last week that when he asked Goldman about the tape, the prosecutor told him in one phone conversation that the tape contained no admissible evidence and in another call that the police had destroyed it. "My impression was that Mr. Goldman had listened to the tape," Gardner testified.

Goldman still claims he never heard the tape and never pursued its contents, even when he found out in 1996 that it hadn't been destroyed. That year, the tape was discovered in the St. Louis County prosecutor's office by Pilate and Sindel and was written about by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in several articles.

"Did you read any of the articles about the tape's contents?" Sindel asked Goldman.

"I don't remember," Goldman said.

Sindel then reminded Goldman that he had written two letters to the editor to the Post-Dispatch complaining about the articles.

"That may be," Goldman replied.

Reasonover's lawyers last week played yet another recorded conversation for Judge Hamilton, this one a phone call between Reasonover and Chapman when she first called to give information about the people she saw at the Vickers station that night.

During the call, Reasonover gave a fake name and asked Chapman several times not to put her name in the paper for fear of reprisals. Chapman promised he wouldn't and asked Reasonover whether she'd come down to the station to look at mug shots. She replied that she would but said she didn't think she could positively identify the people she saw. "I don't want anybody to go to jail for something they didn't do," she told Chapman. He then urged her to try anyway, because there was a $3,000 reward for anyone who could help find the murderers.

"I don't care so much about that," Reasonover said. "Maybe that money should go to the boy's family instead."

The contents of the call were never revealed to Reasonover's jurors. Chapman later arrested Reasonover because during the first call she gave a false name and because the people she eventually picked from mug shots turned out to have alibis.

Goldman did admit last week that, according to law, he should have handed over any and all taped conversations. "At the time, I didn't think it was relevant," he said.

What he did think was relevant was the taped testimony of Jolliff telling police that Reasonover admitted the murder to her in jail. That tape was submitted in Reasonover's murder trial.

Sindel noted: "Every time there was a tape recording that made Ellen Reasonover look bad, there was a police record and a transcript, wasn't there? And every time there was one that made her look good, there wasn't."

"I don't recall"

Besides the two women — Jolliff and Mary Ellen Lyner — who testified that Reasonover confessed the murder to them, police also sought out Marquita Butler, another cellmate. Her testimony at last week's hearing shed some more light on the tactics used in prosecuting Reasonover.

Butler testified last week that she originally considered lying about what Reasonover told her but backed out at the last minute.

"They wanted me to lie," Butler said on the stand, then explained that Chapman fed her all of the information about Buckley's murder she would need to testify, including the names of the two other suspects, Stanley White and Robert Macintosh. "I was making up stories to get some money, but Ellen never told me anything," Butler said.

And once she decided not to cooperate with the deception, Butler said, Chapman got "mean" and threatened to have her arrested.

Chapman said he didn't remember promising Butler any money in exchange for her testimony and didn't recall feeding her any information she would need to lie.

But Sindel then pulled out a transcript of the taped conversation between Butler and Chapman on Jan. 12, 1983. The transcript showed that Chapman promised Butler $150 to come to the station and testify and an additional $7,000 if her testimony led to Reasonover's conviction. Sindel then read aloud Chapman's words to Butler:

""OK, Robert Macintosh, was he one of them?'" Sindel read, then asked Chapman, "So you supplied the name to her, right?"

Chapman replied, "I did say that."

"Did you also say, "Stanley White is one?'"

"Yes," Chapman admitted.

"Did you threaten to have her arrested if she didn't cooperate?"

"I don't recall."

"I don't remember"

Whereas the jury never heard about the light sentence Jolliff got after she testified against Reasonover, in Lyner's case the jury never heard about her past — a past that might have severely damaged her credibility on the witness stand.

At Reasonover's murder trial, Lyner told jurors that Reasonover confessed to Buckley's murder. Lyner also admitted to the jury that she was receiving a reduced sentence for her own crimes in exchange for her testimony. But Lyner told the jury that she had never made any such deal before, and the jury and Reasonover's defense lawyers were never told otherwise by Goldman.

During last week's hearing, Ronald Klein, a St. Louis police officer, testified that in November 1982 he arrested Lyner at her apartment, where he found drug paraphernalia, narcotics, more than 300 stolen items and materials used to create false IDs. Under her bed and in her closet were dozens of stolen purses, wallets and credit cards used to purchase more than $300,000 worth of goods.

"It was probably one of the largest fraud rings ever cracked in the city of St. Louis," Klein testified, adding that Lyner was "incoherent" when she was arrested and admitted she had a $1,000-per-day drug habit. "She was a desperate person when we found her," he said.

Yet jurors at Reasonover's trial were never told about Lyner's desperation or her drug addiction. They were instead told that Lyner, who killed herself in 1990, had been arrested for "writing bad checks," even though her convictions were really for forgery.

"When she testified that she had been charged for writing bad checks, did you correct her and explain it was for forgery?" Sindel asked Goldman.

"I don't remember," Goldman an-swered.

Sindel then pointed out that forgery is far more serious than a bad-check-writing charge, in that writing bad checks simply means a person has overdrawn his or her account but forgery involves intentionally trying to pass off something as genuine that isn't.

"Were you aware that her charges were for forgery and not just writing bad checks?"

"Whatever I testified," Goldman said.

What he told jurors in 1983 was that Lyner was arrested for writing bad checks. Goldman also allowed his witness to tell the jury that she had never made a similar deal for a reduced sentence before.

But Sindel noted that in 1979 Lyner was found guilty of burglary and stealing but hadn't been sentenced as of February 1983. One month later, Lyner's conviction on burglary and stealing was wiped out "for lack of evidence," when in fact court records show she'd made a deal for the reduced sentence in exchange for testifying at another trial unrelated to Reasonover's.

Sindel then pointed to trial transcripts of Reasonover's trial, where Lyner told the jury she had never made a deal before in her life. She lied, Sindel said, and Goldman never corrected her.

"I knew nothing about it," Goldman testified. But Sindel pointed out that in Goldman's own trial notes, her burglary and stealing convictions were listed and that Goldman had drawn a slash through them, indicating that Goldman knew about the deal.

Throughout his questioning of Goldman last Thursday, Sindel maintained a restrained, laserlike focus on nailing down the details of what he believed was prosecutorial misconduct on Goldman's part. When he wrapped up his questioning of Goldman, though, Sindel's restraint cracked a bit.

"So it was your mistakes which deprived Ellen Reasonover of her freedom?" Sindel finally asked Goldman.



"So it was your mistakes which almost sentenced her to death?"



"Don't you think she deserved better than that?"


But Sindel was already back at his seat. At the defense table behind him, tears fell from the hands Reasonover held over her face.

"This man is a judge"

Unlike her 1983 trial, when her lawyers didn't let her take the stand, Reasonover got up in the witness box last week and told a story that had many in the crowded courtroom — lawyers, family members, politicians and community activists — in tears. Reasonover testified that after she went to the Dellwood police station and misidentified people from mug shots, Chapman's attitude toward her changed. He started getting "mean," she said, pounding the table and threatening her.

"He told me that I was going to be 150 when I got out of jail and that my daughter would be 100, and I'd never see her again," she said. "They told me I'd be raped in prison and that if I didn't roll over on Stanley White, I'd be given the death penalty."

Reasonover then said that she was taken somewhere by a police officer and given a polygraph test. When she passed it, the policeman ordered that the test be administered again. When she passed it a second time, the policeman ordered a third. When she passed it the third time, the policeman drove her to yet another place, where a fourth test, which she failed, was administered. This fourth test was what jurors heard about during her trial.

"I was sorry I ever talked to the police," she said, "because they didn't appreciate it."

Reasonover's testimony, as well as that of Goldman, Chapman and others, struck a chord among the approximately 50 supporters of Reasonover who sat through all four days of the trial.

"We live this every day," said Richard Dockett, chair of the St. Louis chapter of the National Black United Front, at one point during Goldman's testimony last week.

There were repeated gasps of surprise as the evidence unfolded. When Chapman left the stand, Pearlie Evans, community activist and longtime assistant to U.S. Rep. William Clay, said, "That man used to be a policeman?"

"Used to be?" someone responded. "He's the chief of police now."

"No!" Evans cried as she covered her face with her hands.

As Goldman testified, state Rep. Betty Thompson (D-St. Louis) sat, muttering under her breath, "This man is a judge. This man is a judge."

But there were also repeated murmurs that the story of Ellen Reasonover is all too familiar. "Those people made their careers on the backs of people like Ellen Reasonover," Dockett said. "Most of them have become wealthy, because Ellen Reasonover dared to be born black and poor."

Reasonover's hearing — perhaps her last chance at freedom — probably wouldn't have happened if Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit group from New Jersey, hadn't hired Pilate and Sindel to pursue the evidentiary hearing in federal court. Reasonover's first appeal failed after her lawyer didn't file the right paperwork, and after that, she was left with little recourse.

"Very few poor or black people can afford this," Dockett says, "And we commend Centurion Ministries for helping us be here today. This was a grassroots effort, and we, like Ellen Reasonover, will prevail."

Judge Hamilton is expected to rule in August whether Reasonover should get a new trial.