Associated Press

Mother freed from prison for crime she didn't commit

February 7, 2008


PHOENIX— During her trial and as she sat in prison for seven years, Rachel Jernigan always insisted she was just a homemaker, not a bank robber or thief.

The 38-year-old was released from federal prison Tuesday night after another woman confessed to the crime.

The case that federal prosecutors used to convict Jernigan was based on mistaken identity, her attorneys say.

"From the beginning, I told the FBI man it wasn't me," Jernigan said. "That there was going to continue to be bank robberies after they locked me up."

And there were more robberies.
Rachel Jernigan and her attorney
Rachel Jernigan and her attorney, Alan Simpson, look at pictures of a lineup which led to her wrongful conviction of bank robbery in 2001.

Federal court records show a Bank of America branch in Gilbert was robbed in September 2000 by a short woman with an acne-marked face who was posing as a customer.

The robber fled without saying a word.

Weeks afterward, two more BofA branches in Chandler and Tempe were robbed by a woman fitting the description of the Gilbert robber and using a demand note with similar language.

Court records show Jernigan became a suspect after a chance conversation between an FBI agent and a postal inspector.

The inspector was investigating Jernigan in connection with shoplifting incidents at a post office. The postal inspector noted Jernigan fit the bank robber's description.

Jernigan then became the focus of the FBI once the bureau compared her photo with grainy surveillance images taken from the bank.

Jernigan was arrested on Nov. 10, 2000 and within a month, another short woman with acne robbed a bank in Gilbert and one in Mesa.

A year later, a similar robber struck at the same BofA branch in Gilbert that Jernigan was accused of robbing.

During Jernigan's trial in March 2001, prosecutors relied solely on witness testimony and surveillance video to connect her to the crimes.

Her attorney countered she had been misidentified. The jury convicted Jernigan of armed bank robbery and for showing a firearm during the heist.

Jernigan was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

That December, Juanita Rodriguez-Gallegos was arrested after a Gilbert Bank of America was robbed. Gallegos' description was nearly identical to that of Jernigan.

During a prison yard conversation in 2001, Jernigan learned of Gallegos' arrest. Jernigan said she immediately notified her attorneys.

FBI agents were aware by then of the women's similarities, Jernigan's attorneys say, but failed to inform prosecutors or Jernigan's defense team.

An FBI spokesman did not return a call for comment Wednesday.

Court records show Gallegos confessed to the September 2000 robbery during a meeting with federal officials Sunday. But authorities said her confession appeared false because her account of the crime did not matchup with victim statements.

The U.S. Attorney's Office filed a motion to dismiss Tuesday saying a jury would likely be confused by Jernigan's case, reducing the likelihood of conviction.

U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Martone granted the dismissal the same day in light of the unusual circumstances.
Although she's been free only a few days, Jernigan said she needs a job.

"I don't care what it is. I'll work at McDonald's, I'll work at Jack in the Box, Circle K, whatever," Jernigan said. "I'll do whatever they'll let me do."

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