Sabrina Butler sat terrified in the dimly lit interrogation room in Columbus, Mississippi. White men towered over the 17-year-old Black grieving mother.
She killed her son, didn’t she? they fired at her. She killed him, they told her repeatedly, for over four hours.
It was just a walk, she thought to herself. She came back home from walking around the block on April 11, 1989, and her baby wasn’t breathing.
Adrenaline rushed in. She and a neighbor tried to perform CPR. Her son didn’t respond. So, she called the hospital. Mississippi’s criminal justice system said his blood was on her hands.
It was wrong.
But Sabrina spent five years on death row before that error was acknowledged.
She was a victim of the kind of tunnel vision that leads law enforcement and prosecutors to focus on one suspect to the exclusion of all else. And the first woman in the U.S. to be exonerated from death row.
Jee Park, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, said clients aren’t viewed as “innocent until proven guilty, because of officials’ tunnel vision influencing the outcome of cases. There’s definitely a pattern of bias,” she said.
The system ignores that officials may have prejudices and biases that influence cases.
“I think many [officials] are doing their jobs to the best of their abilities,” Park said. “I think a lot of them fall prey to this tunnel vision.”
In some cases, once a suspect is found, evidence is lined up to try to convict that person despite evidence pointing to their innocence, Park says. “Prosecutors should not prosecute a case because they can, they should prosecute a case because they should,” she said.
In the 33 years since Sabrina’s 1989 conviction, 3,248 people in the U.S., as of Aug. 8, have been exonerated of their crimes, losing a combined over 27,500 total years waiting for a judge to free them, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. They wait an average of 8.6 years to regain their freedom. The biggest factors that led to the incarceration of the innocent are eyewitness misidentifications, and misapplied forensic science, according to data from the Innocence Project.
This year alone, more than 150 Americans have been exonerated of crimes they did not commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. More people have been exonerated for murder than any other crime, primarily because more resources are invested in cases involving a death sentence or life behind bars.
Johnny Lee Gates, convicted by an all-white jury in 1977 in another Columbus courtroom, this one in Muscogee County, Georgia, of armed robbery, rape and murder is another example of a wrongful conviction. The Georgia Supreme Court vacated his conviction in 2019 based on DNA evidence. Gates was imprisoned for over 43 years, more than half of that time on death row, until the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of intellectually disabled inmates. (His attorneys said Gates had an IQ of 65.) In a negotiated plea deal, Gates secured his freedom on May 15, 2020, by entering a so-called “Alford plea” to manslaughter and armed robbery, meaning he did not admit guilt but conceded prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him. He was sentenced to 20 years on each count and released, while still maintaining his innocence.
In a 2019, court ruling overturning Gates’ conviction and granting him a new trial, Senior Muscogee Superior Court Judge John Allen noted how often prosecutors struck Black jurors in death-penalty cases involving Black defendants to ensure they got an all-white jury.
“The evidence of systematic race discrimination during jury selection in this case is undeniable,” he wrote. “The same prosecutors engaged in the same acts of discrimination in all death penalty cases of black males in the Chattahoochee Circuit for the years 1975-1979. The prosecutors then made racially charged arguments to the all-white juries they secured.”
‘I Knew My Life Was Over’
Butler’s son, Walter would have bonded with his 19-year-old sister, Nakeria Porter, who suffers from the same ailment he died from, polycystic kidney disease, where cysts grow on both kidneys. But he’s gone, and his mother nearly died with him.
Since married, Butler-Smith, who is now 50, said no one spoke to her or told her what to expect in her trial, and no one looked like her. Everyone handling her case was white. Her jury was primarily white as well.
“When I looked at the makeup of the jury,” she said, “I knew my life was over.”
Of people exonerated in America, 52%, like Butler and Gates, are Black and 33% are white, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. A new study by the organization found Black Americans are seven times more likely than white Americans to be falsely convicted of serious crimes.
Looking back on her case, Butler-Smith said it was incredibly wrong that she, a child, was interrogated without her parents present. She faced the interrogation alone, without any knowledge of what was going to happen to her.
“That man (Allgood) created me out to be the worst monster in the world, and I’m trying to figure out why would he say these things when I had no clue,” she said.
Allgood has defended his prosecutorial approach, and in a 2008 Associated Press article following the exonerations of two men wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in separate cases involving 3-year-olds, he disputed any suggestion his office knowingly sent the wrong men to prison.
“It torments the innocent individual, undermines the public confidence in the justice system, and the bad guy is still running loose,” he told AP. “Why people would believe that’s something we would want to do is beyond me.”
On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed and remanded her convictions on Aug. 26, 1992, concluding prosecutors had failed to prove her son’s death wasn’t accidental and that Allgood had committed a reversible error by telling jurors that Butler’s decision not to testify implied guilt.
By the time of her second trial in 1995, one of Sabrina’s neighbors had come forward to corroborate her account that Walter’s bruises occurred while trying unsuccessfully to perform CPR, and the medical examiner changed his opinion and determined Walter had a rare childhood inherited disease, autosomal recessive polycystic kidney disease.
Butler was acquitted and exonerated on Dec. 17, 1995.
Key evidence withheld from trial
Meagan Hurley, the accountability counsel at the Georgia Innocence Project, said she has seen the effects of tunnel vision in law enforcement officers and attorneys. Officials want to be correct in their assessment that a particular person committed a crime, she said, so they filter evidence and information that supports that preconception and ignore evidence that demonstrates innocence.
“Even though that may not come from such a nefarious place,” Hurley said, “it’s a very dangerous practice, and it’s how we see a lot of these wrongful convictions happen.”
In 1985’s U.S. v. Bagley, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-3 it was not unconstitutional to withhold exculpatory evidence – key evidence that could prove a suspect’s innocence – from a case if it wouldn’t materially affect the outcome. Justice Thurgood Marshall disagreed with the ruling, arguing the majority’s decision may encourage prosecutors to withhold key evidence.
Since the ruling, key evidence has been kept from trial in 44% of cases where people were wrongly convicted, according to a 2020 report by the National Registry of Exonerations.
The first case Hurley was involved with at the Georgia Innocence Project was Gates.
On Nov. 30, 1976, police found the body of a 19-year-old woman in a Columbus, Georgia, apartment gagged and with her hands tied behind her back. She’d been raped and shot. A neighbor reported seeing a white man quickly leave the building, and the following day a white man was seen fondling the woman’s body in a funeral home.
Under oath, police later testified they had contacted the man and he had confessed to killing the woman, providing facts only the true killer would have known, according to the Georgia Innocence Project’s website. But they let him go.
Two months later, two men arrested for serious offenses tried to win favor with law enforcement by claiming they had information on the case. One of them told police that Gates, a young, Black man with a a sixth-grade education, had raped and killed the woman. Police found Gates, threatened him with the death penalty and coerced him into a false confession. Only then did they realize the man who identified Gates as the killer had lied. By then, they were set to follow through with Gates’ confession, according to the Innocence Project.
Police went so far as to walk Gates through the crime scene – already cleared of evidence –, videotape an audible confession, had Gates touch a heater and requested a fingerprint technician retrieve fingerprints from the heater, a very specific part of the crime scene, two months later. The technician found the prints in remarkable condition for being two months old, according to the Georgia Innocence Project’s website.
Such official misconduct likely happens more often than people think, said Samuel Gross, University of Michigan law professor and co-founder of the National Registry of Exonerations.
A 2020 report by the registry found official misconduct reported in 72% of cases leading to exoneration from death sentences. For other crimes, the percentage is smaller, such as 38% in robbery cases leading to exoneration.
Officials in the criminal justice system are rarely punished for misconduct. Gross said their actions may be labeled as a mistake, rather than misconduct. He said prosecutors may be motivated by the need to get a conviction, if only to feed their egos, and winning a big case will boost their careers.
Contributing to the problem is those who are impoverished can’t afford a rigorous defense. André de Gruy, state public defender in Mississippi, said that counties in Mississippi supply defense attorneys in most cases, and the majority of those counties underfund that public defense.
Gross said a defense attorney may not have the resources needed to call experts to testify on a defendant’s behalf.
Other problems in Gates’ case included eyewitness misidentification, the selection of an all-white jury and exculpatory evidence withheld from trial.
The Georgia Innocence Project worked with co-counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights to find DNA evidence from the belt and tie used to bind the victim that proved Gates’ innocence. Despite that, and with a Georgia judge noting systemic race discrimination in jury selection involving Black defendants, Gates wasn’t set free until two years later.
Hurley said come reforms have improved the system. The Batson Challenge, the result of a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Kentucky case, prevents a juror from being excluded based on race, but racial discrimination continues both explicitly and implicitly.
“We have to be willing to accept that it’s still there, and agree on ways to, you know, recognize that,” Hurley said.
“One of the things that I find most frustrating,” she said, “is when there’s an opportunity to sort of step up to the plate and acknowledge that misconduct occurred, that mistakes were made, and you have an opportunity to right a wrong, people are sometimes unwilling to admit that anything happened.”
While there’s more public awareness and knowledge about misconduct now, she said the most needed reforms are more accountability measures to prevent official misconduct and more education for those involved in the criminal justice system regarding the impact of implicit and explicit biases.
She said no one is immune to bias or tunnel vision.
Michael Bernstein, psychology professor and director of research at Penn State Abington, said eyewitness misidentification is a lot worse than people think.
A jury might hold eyewitness identification as the gold standard when it should be treated as a part of other evidence, he said.
Sometimes people view eyes as a video camera, he said, with an event replayed in memory. However, Bernstein said, that’s not how memory works. People remember and interpret events differently. Biases, prior experiences and other factors play key roles in how people interpret events.
Jee Park, director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, said that is why physical or circumstantial evidence must be taken into consideration, too.
Mistaken eyewitness testimony has played a major role in more than two-thirds of convictions overturned by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.
Research, such as a May 2021 study by Xavier University, shows racial cues are what people inherently notice when remembering others.
People inherently focus on race identifying features, ignoring identity indicative features – the shape of the eyes relative to the shape of the nose, how they compare with the shape of the mouth “and all the things that make a person who they are,” Bernstein said. It isn’t a problem unique to white people, he said.
‘My story is what helps me’
Butler-Smith remained in Columbus until 2016 before moving to Memphis to get away from the place she said treated her like she didn’t belong. Moving helped her to feel free, she said.
After decades from emerging from her son’s death, the years on death row and her exoneration, she relishes her freedom and takes nothing for granted.
“After you go through all the stuff that I’ve been through, you tend to [realize] a lot of the other stuff is irrelevant, like people being angry and upset and mad and all that stuff. I choose not to live my life like that because it takes down your energy,” Butler-Smith said.
She works with the Witness to Innocence Project, sharing her story and advocating against the death penalty. She is writing a new edition of her book, “Exonerated: The Sabrina Butler Story,” which tells her experiences, and she’s in the process of opening a shelter for women after they leave prison.
The death penalty has been abolished in 23 states, and she believes her story has played in that successful push, she said. “That is a huge reward because I know people are listening.”
Some states – Mississippi is not one of them – have conviction integrity units that work to prevent, remedy and identify false convictions. Butler-Smith has met district attorneys in charge of various conviction integrity units.
“To me, that says we’re moving in the right direction to have those types of units,” she said. “[They] make me feel really, really good, to know my work is not in vain.”
Her mother, Roszalia Smith spent the last years of her life fighting to prove her daughter’s innocence.
When her daughter had tonsilitis, Roszalia Smith was in the news talking about it, which prompted officials to give Sabrina treatment. Smith received threats from people, saying she should shut up since they were going to kill her daughter.
“My family suffered ‘cause it’s not just the person on death row that goes through it, it’s their family [as well],” she said.
Her son, Walter, is buried in Hamilton, Mississippi.
Every year on July 4, she and her children light candles to commemorate his birthday.
He would have turned 34 this year.
This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. It was also produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes MCIR, the Clarion Ledger, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University, Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Mississippi Today.