Katie Monroe is speeding through the rugged mountains north of Salt Lake City, a half hour late and a little bit lost. She’s here to see a woman she recently helped free from prison after 17 years—a woman who was locked up for a murder she didn’t commit. That nightmare is one Monroe knows all too well: 20 years ago, her own mother was wrongly convicted of murder. And today, although Monroe’s eyes are on the road—“We almost hit a pigeon!” she gasps—her mind is on the past, retracing the personal odyssey that has brought her to this lonely, snow-peaked pass in Utah’s Wasatch Range. “It’s really easy to convict someone of something they didn’t do,” Monroe says, nibbling fried polenta from a take-out box on her lap as she drives. “Freeing them—that’s the challenge.”
Monroe, 47, should know: She is the director of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center in Salt Lake City, a small, mostly volunteer band of attorneys, law professors and students dedicated to freeing wrongfully imprisoned people in Utah, Nevada and Wyoming. Monroe is what her profession calls an innocence lawyer, one you don’t call until you’ve been stuck in jail for years—sometimes decades—and have used up all the usual appeals. Even then, you have to be lucky: Of the 200 prisoners a year who write seeking help, only a handful have cases that the center deems strong enough to take on.
For lawyers like Monroe, the hours are long, the pay is low, and the victories, though enormously gratifying, are few. Taking a drive through the mountains to visit a client is a good way to unwind, and Monroe talks a blue streak the whole way. “One thing I learned from Mom’s case,” she says quietly, as if to herself, “is that if you’re in the battle for the long haul, you’ve got to stay sane. You can’t let it take you under, and you can’t be afraid. Because you’re going up against the government. And you get shut down far more often than you get a break.”
There was a time, before she opted for law school at Virginia’s George Mason University, when Monroe dreamed of a career in music or on the stage. She certainly knows how to make an entrance: Last October, speaking at Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C., Monroe swirled into the auditorium in a form-fitting black-and-white dress and knee-high black boots, walked briskly to the front of the room and dived into a rapid-fire, fact-spiked talk about wrongful incarceration that left her audience of 100 law students, professors and judges nearly breathless. Monroe admits that even she has trouble keeping up with her thoughts: Sometimes she’ll hop out of the shower, grab a tube of lipstick and scrawl an idea on her bathroom mirror.
The battle to free America’s wrongfully imprisoned is not for the easily daunted. For starters, no one really knows how many innocent people are currently incarcerated in the U.S., says Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan who is a leading expert on wrongful convictions. The only solid statistic is how many have been exonerated, which Gross says represents only a small fraction of those held in error. He has identified at least 2,061 prisoners who’ve been exonerated since 1989. A shocking number had been on death row: 140 men facing execution have been cleared since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Fifty-seven of the exonerated are women; the longest serving among them, Betty Tyson of Rochester, New York, put in 25 years for murder before a court ruled in 1998 that police had withheld evidence that would have cleared her.
Many of the wrongfully imprisoned are poor men who are black or Latino, but the overall number encompasses men and women of every race, ethnicity and income level, from high school dropouts to well-educated professionals. What they tend to have in common are inadequate lawyers, sloppy police or crime-lab work and eyewitnesses who mistakenly (or deliberately) pointed a finger at them. In a legal system that often assumes it is fail-safe, even prisoners with compelling evidence of innocence are frequently unable to hurdle procedural barriers to a new hearing.
But if you’re fortunate enough to get on Monroe’s short list, you just might walk out that prison door. In the past year, her tiny organization has won two high-profile exonerations in its home state of Utah, and her influence stretches far beyond state lines. Since becoming the center’s director in 2006, Monroe has helped persuade skeptical lawmakers in neighboring Nevada and Wyoming to follow the lead of Utah and most other states by giving inmates access to DNA evidence that wasn’t available at trial and could clear them. In another major advance, she helped pass Utah’s 2008 innocence law, which made the state one of only four jurisdictions (the three others are Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.) that give prisoners a fresh chance—after traditional appeals are exhausted—to prove their innocence even without DNA findings, provided that compelling new evidence has emerged since their conviction. That’s a crucial legal opening, because DNA is available in only 5 to 10 percent of criminal cases, either because the perpetrator didn’t leave any trace at the scene or because police failed to preserve it. Another notable advance under the law: Utah’s exonerees not only are freed but also are eligible to receive compensation for their years behind bars—roughly $34,000 a year for up to 15 years.
In part because of Monroe, flinty old Utah is now a beacon for the national Innocence Network, an affiliation of more than 50 independently run pro bono organizations across the U.S. Monroe is quick to point out she was only one person in a remarkable group that wrote and won passage of the 2008 law, an unlikely alliance that included conservative lawmakers, an influential assistant attorney general and two crusading law professors. But the Utah law, perhaps the most generous of its kind in the nation, is just one of several key legal advances that Monroe has helped secure for innocent prisoners caught in legal limbo. She is also working with police and prosecutors across the West to prevent wrongful convictions before they happen—encouraging them to electronically record interrogations, preserve biological evidence and improve safeguards against eyewitness misidentification. “It makes an enormous difference when a conservative state like Utah takes these steps,” says attorney Barry Scheck, cofounder of the Innocence Project, a national nonprofit legal clinic based at New York City’s Cardozo School of Law that has spearheaded the innocence movement since 1992. “And it’s a testament to Katie’s advocacy. She’s not someone who goes for sentiment or cheap emotions. She tries to win you over with the logic of the argument.” (The Innocence Project formed the Innocence Network and approves applications to join; both Scheck and Monroe sit on the network’s board.)
For sure, Monroe has an uncanny ability to find common ground with people who could hardly be described as like-minded, from conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who served on a blue-ribbon court-reform panel that Monroe helped coordinate, to prosecutors, crime victims and police officials, some of whom are her closest allies. “Katie is very passionate about what she believes, but she would never purposely twist information for effect,” says Linda Krueger, executive director of the criminalistics bureau at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, who has worked with Monroe on innocence policy and legislation. “Sometimes these lawyers have a bad image, that maybe they’re trying to get some guilty party free. But that’s just not who Katie is.”
As she approaches her destination—the tiny, weathered Mormon outpost of Richmond, Utah—Monroe savors a rare victory. Richmond is home to Debra Brown, 54, a soft-spoken, astonishingly unbitter woman who was the first person freed under Utah’s 2008 innocence law. Brown made national headlines last year when, thanks to Monroe’s group, she walked out of prison after 17 years and into her family’s outstretched arms.
A tall, slender woman with auburn hair and a shy smile, Brown waves from the driveway of her aunt’s small house. It’s just a few doors from the trailer where Brown was raised, not far from the town where she supported her three children by plastering walls and laying floor tiles. And it’s just a short trip down the highway from the courthouse where in 1995 she was convicted in the shooting death of her close friend and employer, Lael Brown (no relation), a local landlord.
Debra Brown always swore she didn’t do it, and, in fact, no physical evidence connected her to the murder. Police failed to photograph or preserve key evidence from the house where the landlord was shot—including a stranger’s bloody handprint on the front door. But Debra, a struggling single mother, aroused police suspicion because of a smaller offense: She had forged some checks under Lael Brown’s name. That helped prosecutors make their case, and they convinced a jury that Debra had killed her employer to hide her tracks.
Jurors were never told about another suspect, a convicted thief and drug addict named Bobbie Sheen, who shortly after the shooting had been seen carrying a gun and mysteriously large wads of cash. (A ballistics test showed that Lael Brown had been killed with his own gun, which had then disappeared, presumably stolen by the murderer. The rent money Brown collected that week was missing from the house as well.) Sheen’s car had been seen at Lael Brown’s house that day, and he was furious with the landlord for evicting him weeks earlier. “That dirty SOB has got so much money,” Sheen told a friend, according to court documents. “If we had half the money he has stashed away, we’d both be rich.” Under questioning in court in January 2011, detectives said they could no longer recall why they never pursued the leads they’d received about Sheen. It’s too late now: He committed suicide in 2007.
The story might have ended there, as it does for many people imprisoned for someone else’s crime. A likely suspect is passed over by police. Or the real culprit dies, doesn’t talk or is ignored when he tries to confess in a closed case. But Brown got lucky. Her prison Bible teacher, who believed Brown’s protestations of innocence, contacted the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center in late 2001, and the organization signed on. It took years for the center’s volunteers—University of Utah law professor Jensie L. Anderson and an occasional student, working in their spare time—to gain access to sealed police files, find missing evidence and track down witnesses, some of whom had never testified.
But after Monroe joined the center in 2006, she took two steps that significantly ramped up progress in Brown’s case. Together with Anderson, Monroe created the innocence clinic at the University of Utah to train students as case investigators. And she and Anderson helped persuade Alan Sullivan, a senior attorney at Snell & Wilmer, a leading Salt Lake City law firm, to represent Brown pro bono, a model that the center now employs for all its cases. Her work paid off. In May 2011, after two new witnesses corroborated Brown’s alibi, a judge freed her, ruling that the facts showed Brown could not have committed the crime.
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.
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.
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.
Back in her Salt Lake City bungalow, curled on the couch sipping green tea, Monroe is on a roll. She’s helping a group of exonerated prisoners stage a rock concert for an upcoming Rocky Mountain Innocence Center benefit, and she’s jetting around the West, talking to police and prosecutor groups about avoiding the errors that land the wrong people in prison. “No one wants to make these mistakes,” she says. But fighting for innocent prisoners is a race against time, and Monroe often feels she’s falling behind. “Look, all too often someone’s being wrongfully convicted, right?” Monroe says. “There’s no question that these convictions are preventable, if we could just get out on the front end and improve the way that law enforcement does its business. But getting that work done!” Monroe throws up her hands, then stops and laughs at her own intensity.
The new job she’s just taken may make her work easier: This fall Monroe will start working for the national Innocence Project, expanding its outreach to victims’ organizations, police groups and prosecutor organizations in D.C. “It’s a great fit for me,” Monroe says. For her, the move means going home—and that feels right. She looks up and smiles: Asher, 14, has come in wearing a T-shirt that says EXECUTE JUSTICE, NOT PEOPLE. They need to get on their way; The Tempest is being staged at the university playhouse, and Monroe, once again, is running late. But Asher doesn’t mind a quick interrogation. “I don’t see her as a kick-ass mobilizer person,” he says. “I just see her as my mom.” He gives her a hug and a sweet, braces-filled smile. “But if I were thrown in jail, I would definitely call her. Because I know she’d get me out.”
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