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  • 103 – How America’s 1st Female Death Row Exoneree Overcame Racism, Misconduct, & a Drunk Defense Team

103 – How America’s 1st Female Death Row Exoneree Overcame Racism, Misconduct, & a Drunk Defense Team

103 – How America’s 1st Female Death Row Exoneree Overcame Racism, Misconduct, & a Drunk Defense Team

In April of 1989, teenage mother Sabrina Butler experienced every parent’s worst nightmare when her nine-month-old son Walter suddenly stopped breathing. Despite her intense resuscitation efforts, Walter was pronounced dead at the hospital. Sabrina was then subjected to interrogation by twelve police officers and three detectives — without an attorney present — only to be charged with capital murder and sentenced to death. After years of appeals and assembling a new, internationally renowned defense team, Sabrina was exonerated in 1995, becoming America’s first female death row survivor.

Sabrina now serves on the board of Witness to Innocence, empowering other death row survivors to raise their voices and eradicate the practice of capital punishment, once and for all. Why was a perfect storm of poverty, overt racism, oppression allowed to yield the death sentence of a minor? How do we compel our leaders and citizens to contend with the realities of a fatally flawed criminal justice system? Watch this stirring episode of Open Mike to find out.

Show Notes

[00:01] Background of Sabrina Butler Smith’s case and her horrific experience in the legal system.

[02:21] Welcome to the show, Sabrina. Your story is chilling, and I’m honored you’re here. Let’s jump in. This started with the tragic death of your son Walter and turned into a greater tragedy when you were charged with his murder as a teen. Tell us what happened!

[06:26] Sabrina, was your son healthy up until this point? And he had his regular shots and pediatrician up until this moment? He never had any broken bones or was treated for any injuries?

[07:22] You’re at the hospital, and there are doctors and nurses working on Walter… and you’re panicking because you think you’re in trouble for having left him alone and returned to him in this state… and then what happened?

[07:51] What were the lies you were telling?

[08:48] Doctors and nurses were asking Sabrina many situationally related questions while she was holding the body of her child, i.e. in a state of extreme distress where she was not in the right mind to provide accurate responses. She was then taken to the police station where asked questions, only to be released. The next day, Sabrina returned to the hospital where she was once again taken to the police station where she was aggressively interrogated/intimidated for four hours.

[11:11] So, when you were being interrogated at the police station, did you know your baby had already passed or were you still waiting to hear about his condition?

[11:53] The police read Sabrina, a minor, her Miranda Rights but didn’t understand implications of its language, including misinterpreting her right to remain silent as, “don’t speak until spoken to.”

[12:38] Eventually, you signed a confession… explain how that happened. What did you confess to?

[13:24] Sabrina didn’t learn of Walter’s cause of death until her second trial. She wasn’t allowed to plan or participate in a funeral and didn’t even learn of his burial place until two years after her release.

[14:10] Can you tell us about how you got your first attorneys?

[14:35] Sabrina didn’t meet her trial attorneys until two days prior to the first court date. In 1989, court appointed attorneys were receiving a mere $1,000 per capital case. There was no jury of her peers, no witnesses were called, and she believes her attorney was drunk.

[16:54] Do you remember how many days this trial was? You say you knew deep in your heart you were getting railroaded in this trial…

[18:28] What did the jury look like, were they all-white?

[18:53] The woman who had helped you administer CPR the night Walter passed was in the court room, and your drunk defense attorney didn’t have the thought to put her on the stand… how does that happen? You must have wanted to scream at the court room.

[20:06] The jury came back, you’re sitting in the court room, and they find you guilty of capital murder. What’s going through your head?

[21:23] Did your defense attorneys ever participate in a hearing where they advocated for you not being out to death? What was life like in prison, on death row?

[23:10] Much of what Sabrina learned about legal proceedings was from her cellmate, not her lawyers. Her legal team kept her in the dark.

[23:30] Thank God for that woman being with you… can you tell us about the appeal process?

[24:17] It looks like, two years later, your new lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and his team convinced the state supreme court that the state prosecution improperly commented at trial on your decision not to testify — which is unconstitutional. That’s something you learn on day one of law school. Do you remember what the prosecutor said about that at trial?

[25:12] You get granted a new trial and are now sitting on death row for three years? Did any of your attorneys try to get you out on bond?

[25:58] Before we get to the second trial, tell me about your family, your first child, what the dynamics of support are like for you during this time.

[26:45] Sabrina’s mother became her biggest advocate, appearing in the news, even becoming homeless in her quest to let everyone know what the state of Mississippi was doing to her daughter.

[27:02] Let’s talk about the second trial… were you more optimistic for this second trial with your new defense team?

[27:46] Did either of your first two defense attorneys get disciplined, as far as you know?

[28:27] How was the second trial different from the first one?

[28:50] Clive discovered Walter’s death was caused by nephrotic syndrome, which Sabrina’s daughter also has. Walter also had heart problems and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which caused peritonitis, inability to defecate, and ultimately led to his death by robbing him of oxygen. An autopsy had previously been conducted by the state but was completely inadequate and inept.

[31:07] Were there any witnesses called at your second trial?

[31:42] Sabrina didn’t need to take the stand in the second trial because her new legal team had provided such an immense quantity of evidence.

[31:58] Was the jury makeup any better during this second trial?

[32:17] It took just one hour for the jury to deliver her innocence verdict.

[32:44] You did have an expert witness on the second trial?

[34:32] It sounds like these are night-and-day trials… were you more confident going into this second trial?

[35:28] We’ve done several wrongfully convicted episodes and, Sabrina, your story goes to show how important it is to have good lawyering. They should be teaching your story in law school! This is 101. And the communication you’re talking about goes to show how important it is.

[36:16] You’re acquitted, I can imagine you’re elated to get out of prison after six-and-a-half years. What did those first steps outside feel like?

[38:11] The state granted you $300,000… how did you feel about that?

[38:30] How hard was it reacclimating to society after this ordeal?

[39:45] Tell the viewers and listeners… how is your life now?

[40:09] You mentioned you’re doing speaking and making appearances on podcasts like this… and you also have a website you’re involved with. Can you tell us about that?

[41:45] Sabrina is also working on a tell-all book called Exonerated: The Sabrina Butler Story that’s currently in its completion stages.

[42:34] You’re actually talking to state legislators and working on death penalty reform. Can you tell us about that?

[43:12] You’re also on the board of Witness to Innocence, which empowers death row survivors to help overturn the death penalty in the United States…

[44:26] We’ve done some episodes on Shaken Baby Syndrome (Abusive Head Trauma) cases… your case kind of falls under that category, do you agree?

[45:56] Sabrina is the first woman in the United States to be exonerated from death row.

[46:10] Editor’s note: Julie Baumer’s nephew did not die from his medical condition and is still alive to this day.

[46:56] Sabrina is also attempting to start a halfway house for female exonerees and ex-offenders in Memphis, Tennessee because, while there are plenty of programs for men, there are few available for females.

[49:03] The last question I have for you is… what is your message for people sitting behind bars who know they are innocent? How do you inspire hope in them?

[49:48] I think those are perfect words to end on. Sabrina Butler Smith, thank you for so much for being on Open Mike and sharing your story with us.

[50:17] That was emotional, another crazy exoneree story from a really beautiful woman, Sabrina Butler Smith. Thank you for watching and listening. Send this to someone who needs to hear it. Donate to Witness to Innocence and her website. Thank you for being here for Open Mike.

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