By William C. Lhotka And Tim Bryant
A federal judge ruled Monday that the murder trial of Ellen Reasonover was "fundamentally unfair," setting in motion events that may lead to Reasonover's release from prison 16 years after she was arrested.
Reasonover, 42, was convicted of murdering a 19-year-old gas station attendant, James Buckley, while robbing a Vickers station in Dellwood on Jan. 2, 1983.
A St. Louis County jury found her guilty of the fatal shooting 11 months later, and a judge sentenced her to life in prison without a chance for parole for 50 years.
Chief U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton ordered the state to free Reasonover within 30 days. Hamilton's ruling is the result of a hearing she conducted in June into whether newly found evidence shows that Reasonover's trial was unfair.
That evidence includes two secretly taped conversations that could have helped Reasonover's defense, but the prosecution did not tell the defense of the existence of the tapes before or during the trial. One of the tapes surfaced in 1996; the other appeared in a box marked "prosecutor's files" during the hearing last June.
Richard Sindel, one of the attorneys fighting for Reasonover's release, said he will file a bond motion today and is hopeful that Reasonover will be out on bond by the end of the week.
Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon could appeal Hamilton's ruling to the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Scott Holste, a spokesman for Nixon, said the office had no comment because it had yet to review Hamilton's 75-page order.
The murder case against Reasonover in early 1983 rested primarily on the testimony of two jailhouse witnesses, Mary Lyner and Rose Jolliff. Reasonover had, at different times, shared jail cells with each of the women. They claimed on the stand that Reasonover had confessed her involvement in Buckley's murder to them.
But the jury never knew that, a year before the trial, Lyner had been
arrested by St. Louis police in one of the biggest credit card scams ever
recorded. During the June hearing into the trial's fairness, a police officer
who arrested Lyner said her charges from the credit card scam had
Lyner committed suicide in 1990.
Jolliff testified during the murder trial, but at the June hearing refused to answer questions, even in Judge Hamilton's chambers.
Jolliff invoked her constitutional right to not incriminate herself. Among the questions she wouldn't answer: Did she lie when she testified at Reasonover's murder trial that Reasonover had confessed to her?
Three days after Reasonover supposedly confessed to Jolliff in a cell in Jennings, Jolliff called Reasonover at home, at the request of police. During their secretly recorded conversation, Reasonover expressed her innocence.
The tape showed up for the first time in a box marked "prosecutor's files" during the June hearing, more than 16 years after it was recorded.
The county prosecutor handling Reasonover's murder trial was Steven H. Goldman, who is now a St. Louis County judge. He has said he never heard nor saw the tape before. Goldman also said that he knew about the existence of a second tape but did not know what was on it.
The second tape is of a jailhouse conversation between Reasonover and her boyfriend at the time, Stanley White, who also had been arrested. In the 58-minute tape, Reasonover and White say at least 20 times that they had no involvement in the shooting or the gas station robbery.
That tape was discovered by Jim McCloskey and Paul Henderson, investigators working for Centurion Ministries, a not-for-profit agency that for eight years has been trying to prove Reasonover's innocence. Two Kansas City lawyers -- Cheryl Pilate and Charles Rogers -- also are on the team.
The tape led to the petition for Reasonover's release. Judge Hamilton's hearing was her last chance; prior appeals had been denied at the state and federal levels.
In Hamilton's lengthy order, she states that had the state disclosed such items and facts favorable to Reasonover, then a jury could have determined that Reasonover was a "credible witness" whose testimony was corroborated by the tapes. They also could have found that Jolliff and Lyner were not credible, Hamilton added.
Because of the tapes, Lyner's death and Jolliff's refusal to answer questions, many lawyers observing the case predicted that the state would not retry Reasonover.
Sindel discussed the ruling by phone with Reasonover, an inmate at the Chillicothe Correctional Center in northwestern Missouri.
"She is just thrilled that she will be getting out after being in prison
so long," Sindel said. "She asked me to be there when she gets out, so
she can shake my hand."
The unthinkable is commonplace
Their role in wrongful convictions