Appeals court orders release of woman whose murder conviction was reversed after 43 years in prison

Jul 9, 2024, 10:43 AM

This booking photo provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections shows Sandra Hemme. Judge Rya...

This booking photo provided by the Missouri Department of Corrections shows Sandra Hemme. Judge Ryan Horsman ruled late Friday, June 14, 2024, that Hemme, who has spent 43 years behind bars, had established evidence of actual innocence and must be freed within 30 days unless prosecutors retry her. He said her trial counsel was ineffective and prosecutors failed to disclose evidence that would have helped her. (Missouri Department of Corrections via AP)

(Missouri Department of Corrections via AP)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — An appellate court has ordered the release of a Missouri woman whose murder conviction was overturned after she served 43 years in prison, but the state attorney general is still trying to keep her behind bars as the case is reviewed.

Monday’s ruling by a panel of appeals court judges comes after a judge ruled that Sandra Hemme’s attorneys had established “clear and convincing evidence” of “actual innocence.” Judge Ryan Horsman said on June 14 that she must be freed within 30 days unless prosecutors decide to retry her.

The appeals court granted Republican Attorney General Andrew Bailey’s request to review Horsman’s decision, but told Horsman meanwhile to establish her bail terms and set her free.

The attorney general’s office, which almost always objects to wrongful conviction claims, then asked the appellate court to reconsider, saying the court didn’t give them enough time to argue against her release. Bailey’s office also argued that Hemme was sentenced decades ago to 12 years for violence in prison, and she would start serving that penalty now. Her attorneys responded Tuesday that keeping her incarcerated any longer would be a “draconian outcome.”

Hemme, now 64, has been serving a life sentence at a prison northeast of Kansas City after she was twice convicted of murder in the death of library worker Patricia Jeschke. She’s now the longest-held wrongly incarcerated woman known in the U.S., according to her legal team at the Innocence Project.

After an extensive review, Horsman found that Hemme was heavily sedated and in a “malleable mental state” when investigators repeatedly questioned her in a psychiatric hospital. Police ignored evidence pointing to a discredited fellow officer who died in 2015, and the prosecution wasn’t told about FBI results that could have cleared her, so it was never disclosed before her trials.

The prosecutor at her second trial has agreed, four decades later, that nothing linked her to the crime other than her confession, which followed multiple contradictory statements, the judge noted.

Her attorneys described her ultimate confession in a court filing as “often monosyllabic responses to leading questions.”

“She is the victim of a manifest injustice,” Horsman concluded in his 118-page ruling. “This Court finds that the totality of the evidence supports a finding of actual innocence.”

But Bailey then sought a delay in Hemme’s release to allow an appellate court review, saying she represents a safety risk to herself or others, citing a 1990s attack on a prison worker and statements she made decades ago about enjoying violence, and arguing that the evidence she presented is not “newly discovered,” so “Hemme did not meet the actual innocence standard as a matter of law.”

The Buchanan County prosecutor’s office, which tried the case, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Hemme was arrested weeks after the death of Jeschke, a 31-year-old library worker who lived in St. Joseph, Missouri. After Jeschke missed work on Nov. 13, 1980, her worried mother climbed through an apartment window and discovered her daughter’s nude body on the floor, surrounded by blood, with her hands tied behind her back and a telephone cord and a pair of pantyhose wrapped around her throat. A knife was under her head.

These and other details were released to the media by the St. Joseph police chief, Robert Hayes, as the crime prompted a massive investigation.

Meanwhile, the department took only a cursory look at Michael Holman, a since discredited St. Joseph police officer who was being investigated for insurance fraud and burglaries, and ended that investigation after evidence cast doubt on his alibi. Holman’s plea deal included a promise not to prosecute him for any other “criminal matters now under investigation.” He died in 2015, according to the judge’s finding of facts.

Hemme wasn’t on anyone’s radar until she showed up more than two weeks after the killing at the home of a nurse who once treated her, carrying a knife and refusing to leave. Police took her back to St. Joseph’s Hospital, the latest in a string of hospitalizations that began when she started hearing voices at the age of 12, and she was heavily sedated.

It turned out that Hemme had been discharged from the hospital and hitchhiked out of town hours before Jeschke was last seen alive. She showed up that evening at her parents home, more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the east.

Police interviewed the initial driver who provided her alibi, but this wasn’t shared with the jury, the judge found.

Investigators began interrogating her as the psychiatric hospital treated her with antipsychotic drugs that triggered involuntary muscle spasms. She complained that her eyes were rolling back in her head. Detectives said Hemme seemed “mentally confused” and not fully able to comprehend their questions, her attorneys argued.

Hemme ultimately pleaded guilty to murder to avoid the death penalty, and after her plea was thrown out on appeal, she was convicted again in 1985 after a one-day trial. The prosecutor told Horsman that police never shared exculpatory evidence, including FBI tests that ruled out any connection between Hemme and crime scene evidence.

Police also didn’t share key evidence pointing to their fellow officer, even though his pickup truck was seen outside the victim’s apartment, he tried to use her credit card and her earrings were found in his home.

When Holman couldn’t be ruled out as the source of a palm print detected on a TV antenna cable found next to the victim’s body, the FBI asked for clearer prints. Police, however, didn’t follow up. An FBI report also found that a hair found on the victim’s bedsheet had “microscopic characteristics similar to Holman’s head hair samples and he could not be eliminated as the source.”

Jurors never heard these details because the police never shared them with prosecutors, the judge found.

“This Court finds that the evidence shows that Ms. Hemme’s statements to police are so unreliable and that the evidence pointing to Michael Holman as the perpetrator of the crime (is) so objective and probative that no reasonable juror would find Ms. Hemme guilty,” Horsman concluded.

The judge also noted how police had showed Hemme crime scene photos and other details that a prosecutor later falsely told jurors only the killer would know. Chief Hayes — who died in 2010 after serving time for involuntary manslaughter — also was unusually involved, the judge noted, participating in questioning the victim’s father as he described buying his daughter a pair of gold horseshoe-shaped earrings.

That those earrings were found in Holman’s home is another fact the jury never heard.

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Appeals court orders release of woman whose murder conviction was reversed after 43 years in prison