The Lawyer of Last Resort

When the appeals are exhaustedand the jailhouse key about to be thrown away, Katie Monroe is the woman to call. For the past two decades, she hasfought to free the wrongfully convicted—including her own mother, who was sentenced to 22 years for a murder she did not commit

by Alexis Jetter
katie monroe in front of prison image
Katie Monroe at the Utah State Prison in Draper, where several clients of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Ceneter are incarcerated.
Photograph: Dan Winters

Several months have passed since that rainy, emotion-filled afternoon. Today, Monroe wants to see how Brown, who became a grandmother while in prison, is adjusting to life on the outside. “You look gorgeous!” Monroe says, bounding out of the car and giving Brown a squeeze. Indeed, the transformation is striking: Brown looks nothing like the vacant-eyed woman in red prison sweats pictured in news accounts. She’s downright radiant, with elegantly swept-back hair, proud bearing and a bright new smile, enhanced by implants donated by a local dentist. And yet, five months after her release, Brown still seems dazed to be out in the brilliant sunlight. “We’re healing,” she says a bit wistfully of the long, bittersweet process of reuniting with her family, some of whom blame themselves—unfairly, says Monroe—for failing to secure her release sooner.

The two laugh and chat over coffee until Brown abruptly turns serious. “When I met you, it was just like turning a Bic lighter completely up on the flame,” she says to Monroe. “Because the hope, instead of flickering, went whoof! I started believing, This is really going to happen.”

“Jeesh, Deb, you give me way too much credit,” Monroe says, shaking her head in protest. “I just have a belief that some cases can be won. That with enough digging, perseverance and fighting in court, you can win.”

Missteps send the wrong people to prison every day—some to death row. False confessions. Unreliable forensics. Snitch testimony. Police who ignore evidence that doesn’t fit their hunch, and prosecutors who cut corners to win. Even experienced prosecutors concede that on occasion innocent people have been ground under the wheels of justice, although in their view such cases are rare. “Police and prosecutors are under a tremendous amount of pressure to solve crimes,” says Scott Reed, criminal-justice-division chief of the Utah attorney general’s office. “When there are dead bodies, people want to know that the guy who’s responsible has been taken care of. They want to know they’re safe. And maybe that’s why hunches get pressed into service with what otherwise might be troubling holes in the fabric of their proof.”

Reed, like every other prosecutor interviewed for this story, said he was deeply troubled by the thought of an innocent person imprisoned for the crime of another. “There are always contradictions” in the evidence, he points out. “There are always things that you can’t reconcile. And maybe it’s an excuse, but you say, OK, we’ll leave that up to the jury.” That’s precisely the problem, Monroe says. Juries are often ill equipped to deal with factual holes and inconsistencies—-especially when the problems are papered over or even obfuscated. “A trial isn’t a clean event,” she says. “There’s all sorts of room for mind games and channeling of evidence. And what goes on at trial is often far from the truth of the matter.”

Monroe learned that lesson the hard way; in 1992 her mother, Beverly Monroe, was sentenced to 22 years in prison for a murder she did not commit. An organic chemist, Beverly, then 54, worked for Philip Morris in Richmond, Virginia, and had been romantically involved with Roger de la Burde, a tobacco scientist, for 13 years. On the night of March 4, 1992, Beverly dined with de la Burde at his house. She drove home but felt uneasy; de la Burde had been severely depressed over personal and financial troubles. Unable to reach him by phone later that evening, she returned to his home the next morning—and found him dead on the couch, a single bullet wound in his head, his handgun at his side.

First published in the September 2012 issue

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Solmaz 01.22.2013

Monroe's personality is rare in our society. Not all lawyers believed that most people who are convicted are innocents. Katie Monroe is indeed a woman of substance.

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