Bring on the Snitches 
Steve Weinberg
The American Lawyer 

August 3, 2000 


If an undue reliance on "snitches" raises a red flag about possible wrongful conviction, then the prosecution of Ellen Reasonover was covered in red. 

When prosecuting Reasonover for a January 1983 gas station robbery and the murder of attendant James Buckley, police and prosecutors lacked eyewitnesses or physical evidence, so they depended on a combination of tenuous circumstantial evidence and Reasonover's supposed confessions to jailhouse informants. Add to this the other classic signs of prosecutorial misconduct -- failing to disclose exculpatory statements and leniency deals that the state cut with its snitches -- and Reasonover's case becomes a veritable cookbook for wrongful conviction. 

Here, from Reasonover's first several weeks in the criminal justice system, is the chronology of a handful of witness statements -- the uncorroborated ones that supposedly incriminated Reasonover, and the exculpatory ones captured on tape that prosecutors managed to suppress for more than a decade. 

JANUARY 7: Five days after the murder, Reasonover and ex-boyfriend Stanley White, having inexplicably emerged as suspects, are placed in adjacent jail cells. The police roll the hidden tape, hoping Reasonover and White will talk about the case. They do, but it's not what detectives want to hear. Both prisoners express puzzlement and anger about why they are in custody. Their 56-minute conversation betrays such ignorance about the details of the crime that an unbiased listener would have to conclude that neither one had anything to do with it. Prosecutors never tell the defense about it. 

JANUARY 7: Within a few hours, police shift Reasonover to another jail, placing her in a cell with prisoners Rose Carol Jolliff and Marquita Butler. Jolliff later tells police and prosecutors that Reasonover promptly implicated herself, along with White and a third suspect. In important respects, the story contradicts the evidence and common sense. Police do not record the conversation. 

Reasonover later denies confessing to Jolliff, and Butler supports Reasonover's story, despite enticements to rat on her. But the police embrace Jolliff's story, deciding that Reasonover and Butler are lying. Jolliff later denies under oath that her testimony would earn her a lenient sentence, after her lawyer receives a prosecutor's assurance of just that. 

JANUARY 12: With Reasonover out of jail, police and prosecutors convince the still-incarcerated Jolliff to go back for more, in a telephone call to Reasonover. This conversation is secretly recorded, and Reasonover speaks eight times of her innocence -- to the same woman who supposedly had heard an unambiguous, detailed confession five days earlier. Neither police nor prosecutors mention this tape to the defense. 

FEBRUARY 9: Reasonover is back in jail on charges of robbing a second gas station, a new case brought by the same prosecutor. Reasonover has two cellmates later say under oath that she never implicated herself in the murder or the second robbery. But one inmate, convicted felon and heroin addict Mary Ellen Lyner, supposedly hears Reasonover confess almost immediately after walking into the cell. Lyner later admits on the witness stand that she got favorable treatment in her own cases for testifying against Reasonover, but then lies about her history of testifying for leniency. 

FEBRUARY 25: An undercover female police officer is placed in jail with Reasonover, with a tape recorder at the ready. To stimulate conversation, police remove Reasonover to serve her with a capital murder indictment, and then return the shaken defendant to the cell. Reasonover starts talking to the officer, but nothing she says is incriminating. 

After a trial in July 1983 featuring Lyner's testimony, Reasonover is convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for the second robbery. Four months later, with Lyner and Jolliff testifying against her, Reasonover is tried and convicted in the murder case. The jury votes 11-to-1 for the death penalty; the sole holdout guarantees her a life sentence. In August 1999 -- 16 years later, with the exculpatory tapes finally discovered and transcribed, and the leniency deals revealed -- Reasonover is released from prison. Police and prosecutors never charged anyone else in the murder of James Buckley. 

How the System Works
Truth in Justice