Good Samaritan Freed 16 Years After One Juror Saved Her From A Death Sentence
By Hans Sherrer
Justice Denied magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 8
Ellen Reasonover called the police on January 3, 1983 to report information she thought might help catch the murderers of a gas station attendant. She soon found herself charged with the man's murder and she was tried and convicted. A lone juror refused to vote for her execution so she was sentenced to 50 years in prison without the possibility of parole. After being imprisoned for 16 years, a federal judge threw out her conviction on August 3, 1999 as being “fundamentally unfair” and ordered her released.
Ellen Reasonover has proclaimed her innocence from the time she was arrested for the brutal January 2, 1983 murder of James Buckley. He was shot seven times while working as a gas station attendant in Dellwood, Missouri. In December 1983 Ms. Reasonover was tried and convicted of his murder.
During the penalty phase of her trial a lone juror refused to vote for Ellen's execution and thus prevented the unanimous vote necessary for the judge to sentence her to death. Instead, the trial judge imposed a sentence on Ms. Reasonover of 50 years imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
That juror's courage to stand alone provided Ellen Reasonover with the 16 years that were necessary to uncover the truth of her case and present it to a federal appeals court. Missouri's Chief U. S. District Judge, Jean C.
Hamilton, held an evidentiary hearing in June of this year related to Ms. Reasonover's writ of Habeas Corpus. The judge reviewed the basis of Ellen's claim that she was the innocent victim of a terrible injustice. On August 3rd, Judge Hamilton issued her ruling. She threw out Reasonover's conviction and ordered her released from prison.
In her 75-page opinion, Judge Hamilton wrote: “The prosecution's failure to turn over evidence favorable to the defense rendered trial fundamentally unfair and deprived of her rights under the due process clause.”
What was fundamentally unfair about Ellen Reasonover's prosecution?
• No witness placed her at the scene of the murder.
• There was no physical evidence found at the gas station linking her to James Buckley's murder.
• She was not found with, or linked to the murder weapon.
• The prosecution said her motive to murder Mr. Buckley was to rob the gas station. Yet no money was taken from the cash register and nearly $3,000 was found in the gas station's unlocked safe.
• The only evidence presented at trial against Ellen Reasonover was the testimony of two women with long criminal histories. The two women, Rose Joliff and Mary Ellen Lyner, had been in a cell with Reasonover after her arrest. They both testified they heard her admit she had murdered James Buckley. However, five other women jailed with Reasonover, including three in the jail cell with her at the same time as Joliff and Lyner, testified they didn't hear Reasonover say anything incriminating.
• At Ms. Reasonover's trial, the prosecution denied that it had agreed to exchange anything of value with Joliff and Lyner for their testimony. Years after Reasonover's conviction, however, it was uncovered that the prosecution paid Joliff in cash for her testimony, and Lyner was rewarded by having charges of participating in a major credit card scam dropped.
• The prosecution withheld two exculpatory audio tapes from the defense in violation of pre-trial discovery requirements. These tapes were secretly recorded by police before her trial. Ellen's unwavering statements of innocence on the tapes corroborated her later testimony in court and undermined the testimony of the prosecution's two "star" witnesses. One tape was of a conversation between Ms. Reasonover and Joliff four days after the prosecution alleged that she confessed to Joliff. Ms. Reasonover repeatedly expressed her innocence on the tape and Joliff didn't challenge her by making any mention of a previous confession. The other tape was secretly made in jail when Reasonover and her boyfriend, Stanley White, were placed in cells next to each other after they were initially arrested for questioning about the murder. In that conversation, which they did not know was being taped, they repeatedly expressed bewilderment at their arrest and stated more than twenty times that they were innocent of having anything to do with anyone's murder. Mr. White was questioned but not charged. The existence of the first tape was discovered in 1996, and the existence of the second was uncovered in June of 1999 when it was found in a box marked “prosecutor's files.”
How then, in spite of her innocence, did Ellen Reasonover come within a single vote of being sentenced to death and perhaps being executed?
It was the result of pure happenstance, and any one of us could find ourselves in a similar situation. Early on the morning of January 2, 1983 Ellen ran out of change while at a laundromat. She went to a nearby gas station to get some change and it happened to be the one where James Buckley worked and it was on the morning he was murdered. Ms. Reasonover couldn't find an attendant to help her, so she went to a convenience store to get the change she needed. When she learned the next day there had been a murder at the gas station, she called the police to describe two men she had seen there and the vehicle they were driving.
Ellen Reasonover was rewarded for her desire to be a good Samaritan by becoming the chief suspect in James Buckley's murder. As a poor black woman, she was helpless against the prosecutorial onslaught unleashed against her once she was charged with murdering him.
After she was convicted and imprisoned, Ellen wrote letters to everyone she thought might be able to help her, including the Pope and presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. None of her letters produced any reason for hope until she contacted Centurion Ministries six years ago. Jim McCloskey and Paul Henderson reviewed her case, and they became convinced of her innocence. They took up her cause and enlisted the aid of a team of dedicated pro bono lawyers.
Jim McCloskey described Reasonover's case as “insane,” and the years of effort by many people to have her freed for a murder she didn't commit was rewarded when she walked out of Missouri's Chillicothe Correctional Center on August 3rd.
Ellen Reasonover on the day of her release
Steven Goldman is the now former prosecutor who orchestrated Ellen Reasonover's conviction. He has expressed disappointment with Judge Hamilton's ruling. Goldman contends that Ms. Reasonover was accorded a “fair trial” and she should still be in prison.
It is understandable that after being falsely imprisoned and kept from raising her daughter from the time she was two years old, that Ellen Reasonover describes Goldman as “an evil man with no conscience and no heart.” She is also justified in wondering, “I'm the victim here. Who's going to prosecute him?” Unfortunately for her, the answer is no one.
Ms. Reasonover will have to be satisfied with beginning her life anew as a 42 year-old woman and mother who was robbed of nearly 17 years by Steven Goldman's prosecution of her based on lies and the withholding of evidence. Mr. Goldman is safely protected from prosecution for his central role in the miscarriage of justice suffered by Ellen Reasonover. He is now known as Judge Steven Goldman of the St. Louis County Court.
Sources: “1983 Murder Conviction Overturned Missouri Woman Freed as Judge Rules Prosecution Was 'Fundamentally Unfair',” Athelia Knight (staff writer), Washington Post, August 4, 1999, p. A2.
“Woman convicted of '83 killing may go free,” William C. Lhotka & Tim Bryant (staff writers), St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 3, 1999.
“Reasonover returns to tearful reunion,” William C. Lhotka (staff writer), St. Louis Post-Dispatch, August 5, 1999.
“Near-Death Experience,” Bob Herbert (op-ed writer), New York Times, August 22, 1999, Op-Ed page.