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

By this time, Monroe was working at her dream job, shaping civil rights policy for refugees, women and minorities at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. But after her mother was imprisoned, she quit to dedicate herself to her mother’s case, relying on savings, credit cards and her boyfriend’s earnings from his job at a photocopy shop to get by. She filed a motion of habeas corpus and persuaded two savvy and committed Richmond lawyers to adopt Beverly’s cause. “Katie was really the spur, the squeaky wheel, asking, ‘How about this? How about that?’ ” says Steve Northup, the senior attorney on the case.
Back then, Monroe was dating Andy Montague, a lanky, blue-eyed artist from Montana whom she’d met at a Ziggy Marley concert when she was 29 and he was 27. Now they worked around the clock in her D.C. apartment, assembling the facts Katie needed to appeal the conviction. As the case ground slowly through the courts, their personal life moved forward, too. “We talked about getting married because we loved each other so much,” Katie says. “But Mom was in prison, and I wasn’t going to get married without her.”

When their son, Asher, was born in 1998, the couple moved to Richmond so Montague could go to art school, Monroe could more easily work on the case, and Asher could see his grandmother. “Seriously, that’s all Asher knew,” Monroe says. “For the first three years of his life, he visited Mom in prison every weekend.” As they arrived one day, Asher looked up at the razor wire and said, “Mimi’s house!” That practically undid Monroe. “Not for long,” she vowed through gritted teeth. “If I have to bust her out with a tank, it’s going to happen.”

Judge Richard Williams, an affable but keen-eyed old Southern liberal, first heard Beverly’s case in 1999. He granted her attorneys the right to see the full police and prosecution files on the case and gave them the power to question witnesses.

Gradually, all the secrets tumbled out: the original suicide reports, the gunshot-residue test and the deal with the jailhouse informant. By April 5, 2002, three years into the process, Williams had seen enough. “This case is a monument to prosecutorial indiscretions and mishandling,” he thundered in his decision. “Nothing can be more egregious in a criminal case than denying a defendant the raw material needed to secure a fair trial.” Evidence that could have cleared Beverly Monroe “appears to have been in the possession of the commonwealth at all times, and for reasons never explained, it was withheld from the defendant.” Then the judge vacated Beverly’s conviction and set her free. She had been in prison for seven years. Now she needed to restart her life.
And so did her daughter. Monroe’s relationship with Montague, which had survived the hardest years of Beverly’s confinement, foundered once the battle was won. “You’re leaving now?” Monroe asked incredulously, but on some level she understood. “It had not been easy living with the Monroes all these years.” She too needed a break from the emotional upheaval of her mother’s case. “I wanted to slam that chapter of the book shut,” she says. “Close the whole book and move on. I hadn’t realized how much healing needed to be done.”

Monroe landed a job with the Constitution Project, a bipartisan think tank in Washington that advises Congress on ways to fix the criminal-justice system. Soon she was working alongside former U.S. attorney general Ed Meese, Justice Alito and a host of other notable public officials. Glamorous and fast paced, the job threw her into the heady world of D.C. power politics. But by 2006, when Monroe got a call from a friend in Utah about the job at the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, she was ready to return to the grueling, poorly paid and often frustrating cause that she now realized was her life’s work.


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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