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Northwestern launching project on wrongfully convicted women

Published: Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 9:57 a.m. CDT

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(MCT) — CHICAGO — Julie Rea’s 10-year-old son was murdered in their downstate Illinois home in 1997.

Rea said she couldn’t imagine anything living through anything more painful. Then she was accused of committing the murder herself, and eventually convicted and sentenced to 65 years in prison.

Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions represented Rea at her retrial in 2006. The jury heard a taped confession from convicted killer Tommy Lynn Sells, and despite the prosecution’s contention that his confession was false, Rea was found not guilty.

Being falsely accused “hurt so much more than anything I could have ever imagined,” Rea said. “It makes you feel really alone in the world.”

Rea is among a group of women, all exonerated of serious crimes, who are backing the Northwestern center’s newest endeavor — a Women’s Project, which formally launches on Thursday as the first of its kind in the country.

The initiative will examine cases of wrongfully convicted women and focus on the unique obstacles they face as their cases make their way through the criminal justice system, said Karen Daniel, an attorney at the center, who serves as the project’s co-director.

The path to freedom by those who are wrongfully convicted can be even more daunting for women for a number of reasons, she said. For one, compared to male defendants, crimes for which women are accused more often lack the presence of DNA evidence — meaning DNA cannot be used to exonerate them.

“I think the whole DNA revolution leaves women behind because their cases tend to not be those type of cases,” Daniel said. “ … If you don’t have it in your case, it can be harder to defend.”

In more than 60 percent of cases where women were exonerated, no crime actually occurred, according to statistics provided by the center. Research has shown that women are often convicted in cases where accidental or natural deaths, arsons and even deaths resulting from medical disorders were mistaken for murders, organizers said. In many cases, they added, women who are accused of harming their children or other loved ones and are often convicted on largely circumstantial evidence.

For example, Patricia Stallings was convicted in 1991 of murdering her son, who was taken to a Missouri hospital with high levels of ethylene glycol — a key ingredient of antifreeze — in his blood. She was set free when test confirmed he actually died of a genetic disorder that produces false positives for ethylene glycol.

In another case involving a woman accused of killing her child, Chicago mother Nicole Harris was convicted in Cook County in the 2005 death of her son, which had initially been deemed an accident by the medical examiner. A federal appeals court last month vacated her conviction; prosecutors are appealing.

Experts agree that cases involving the death of a child are among the most difficult to defend. Women in particular have to combat what Daniel calls “the mother myth,” the notion that mothers should be able to walk through a wall of fire to save their children.

It’s a perception Daniel said played out in the case of Tabitha Pollock, who was convicted of first-degree murder on the theory that she should have known that her boyfriend, who had confessed to killing her daughter, was dangerous. The Illinois Supreme court reversed Pollock’s conviction in 2002.

Gender bias also has a way of creeping into cases, experts say. Rea’s ex-husband falsely testified that she had contemplated aborting her son, which she said convinced the conservative jury that she was already a murderer.

In addition, Daniel said research has also shown that women tend to communicate in more tentative and indirect ways than men, which does not line up with law enforcement views of how an innocent person should act.

“For (center attorneys) to spread their wings and launch this new project can only enhance the quality of criminal justice,” said Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project. “It means that these women who are innocent are going to get much attention than they’ve gotten before. It’s good for everybody.”

Joyce Ann Brown spent more than nine years in prison for a 1980 robbery and murder in Texas before charges were dropped.

“I think (this project) is the best thing that could happen at this point of time,” she said. “I think that when women see that other women have been exonerated, they will begin to stand up and believe there is an opportunity to open the door that has been shut in their face.”

Organizers said few of the factors they’re looking at are limited solely to women, but many disproportionately affect them.

“We all know that all wrongfully convicted people, men and women, are very traumatized by the experience,” said Judy Royal, who is the Women’s Project’s other director, “but some of the cases we’ve had with women … it seems it makes them even more vulnerable and traumatized.”

Gloria Killian, a California woman convicted for being the mastermind in a 1981 robbery and murder, had her conviction overturned after more than 17 years in prison. She remembers not too long ago being the only woman at a national innocence conference.

“A piece of this is about our own healing,” she said of the project. “It’s hard to stand there by yourself, even when you’re backed by rows and rows of men.”

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