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

Beverly blamed herself for leaving. And there were echoes of a past tragedy: Beverly had never recovered from her father’s suicide 22 years earlier. “It has forever haunted me that I wasn’t there to help when I should have been,” Beverly says. “So when this happened to Roger—well, you always blame yourself that there was something you could have said or done.” Beverly’s overblown sense of responsibility struck David Riley, an ambitious state investigator, as suspicious. Then he discovered that de la Burde had a younger lover, who was about to bear his child. Beverly, he argued, was a spurned woman who had staged a suicide to mask a murder.

There was one major problem with Riley’s theory: In internal memoranda, both the local and state medical examiners had deemed de la Burde’s death a suicide. A test performed by a state forensic scientist found extensive gunshot residue on de la Burde’s right hand, strongly suggesting that he was the shooter. But it took five years for Beverly and Katie to learn about those findings. For reasons that are still hotly contested, the jury never heard testimony about the suicide memos or the gunshot-residue report. Instead, the state medical examiner’s office, after meeting with Riley, labeled the death a homicide. (When contacted for an interview, Riley declined to be quoted. But he denied influencing the medical examiner’s decision or manipulating Beverly or the evidence.)

Incredibly, Beverly didn’t tell her daughter, a lawyer, that she’d been questioned by the police. Katie Monroe, who was living an hour away in Charlottesville, where she was clerking for a judge, didn’t find out until weeks later that her mother was under suspicion. “Mom has no alarm system,” she says. “She trusted the police.”

By then it was too late. In the course of cooperating with the police, Beverly signed a statement saying she had been at de la Burde’s home when he shot himself—even though an eyewitness and a time-stamped receipt from a grocery store proved otherwise. Beverly says she had no choice: The police had threatened to have her charged with first-degree murder if she didn’t sign. From that point, it was a small leap for prosecutors to assert that Beverly had not only witnessed de la Burde’s death but also pulled the trigger. And in a final, bizarre twist, prosecutors produced a jailhouse informant who testified—in return for a reduced sentence, Katie later learned—that Beverly had attempted to buy an untraceable gun from her. Beverly says she’d never seen the woman before, but prosecutors insisted that the woman, despite a string of felony convictions, had no reason to lie. Beverly’s case was also damaged by inadequate representation by her defense attorney. Jurors took less than three hours to find Beverly guilty of first-degree murder.

“I have these very visceral memories of wanting to physically protect Mom,” Monroe says, fighting back tears, “and of not being able to keep people from taking her away.” Monroe filed appeal after appeal and succeeded—after Beverly served six months in jail—in getting her out on bail for two and a half years. But ultimately those appeals failed. On the final weekend before Beverly had to report to prison to serve the remainder of her sentence, the family gathered at her small, cedar-clad house, which Beverly had put up for sale to pay her legal bills. As their mother packed, Monroe, her older brother and her younger sister watched in nervous dismay. “We were shells of people, just husks of people,” Monroe says. “Mom was trying to rally us, and we just wanted to disappear into the floor.” That night, unable to sleep, Monroe crept into Beverly’s room. “I’ll make sure that you come home, I promise,” she told her mother in the dark. “We’re going to fight this and win.” After the family drove Beverly to the prison the next morning, Monroe went back to her mother’s house, crawled into Beverly’s bed and cried for three days. “I really felt I might die,” she says.

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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