Most people have heard stories of innocent men and women being incarcerated throughout the U.S. for years, decades even before they are exonerated and released with an apology. Then there are the cases of death row inmates put to death and exonerated only after their lives were taken. Many of these cases have taken place in the state of Texas. Knowing some of the statistics, I began writing to a prisoner in Gatesville, Tex., three years ago to get an inside perspective on life in prison. What I’ve discovered since is a miscarriage of justice for this particular prisoner and, likely, dozens, if not hundreds like her.
Elizabeth Jane Burke has been an inmate in Gatesville since 2003. Despite the fact that she was sentenced to 77 years in prison for the smothering death of her seven-week-old son, Ian, who passed away on October 14, 2002, new evidence has since arisen, calling into question Burke’s incarceration.
The medical examiner on Burke’s case, one Paul Shrode, was fired from his position after lying on his resume; he also failed his pathology boards the very year he testified on her case. He admitted to performing over 400 autopsies a year by himself, despite the fact that the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) states that the “recommended maximum number of autopsies is 250 per year.” When you perform more than that recommendation, errors are bound to take place; when that number exceeds 350, the errors can become egregious.
According to trial transcripts, the police who arrived at the scene when Burke’s son was discovered to not be breathing went against protocol and transported Ian in the back of their patrol car halfway to the hospital before transferring him to EMTs en route — a mistake they were later chastised for. In fact, Burke was not considered a person of interest nor was Ian’s death considered suspicious until the tardiness of the ambulance’s arrival and the transport of the child was brought to the media’s attention; before the police and EMTs were brought under scrutiny, Ian’s death was considered to be from natural causes.
Living in a trailer park under impoverished circumstances, Burke could not afford a lawyer. After reading every single page of the trial transcript, I was shocked at how this woman’s court-appointed attorney handled her case. He waived the Daubert hearing, a ruling of evidence regarding the admissibility of expert witnesses’ testimony during federal legal proceedings. His “expert witness” to counteract Shrode’s testimony had not practiced in over 30 years and was ripped apart by prosecution.
The media also focused heavily on a supposed “confession” made to a neighbor Burke had never spoken to before her son’s death. That same neighbor was married to a man who was connected to the police and EMTs who had not taken proper care of Ian at the scene and on the way to the hospital.
Burke never had a chance, despite what I’ve come to believe whole-heartedly is her innocence. Why else would she not have taken the plea bargain offered her?
Sadly, Burke is one of countless others who have suffered at the hands of a flawed justice system. Just this month in the Texas Monthly, a panel was brought together to discuss why the state of Texas has had more wrongfully convicted prisoners exonerated than almost any other state in the nation. The panel consisted of Art Acevedo (chief of the Austin Police Department), Rodney Ellis (Senator from District 13 in Houston), Anthony Graves (wrongfully convicted exoneree who spent 1992-2010 behind bars), Barbara Hervey (judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals and chair of the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit), Kelly Siegler (special prosecutor) and Craig Watkins (DA of Dallas County).
While there are many systemic issues discussed in the article, Ellis brings up the fact that, “A lot of times somebody’s income determines if they’re innocent.” He later adds, “Most of [the wrongfully convicted] are poor…”
Agreeing, Graves says, “You go in with this notion of being innocent until proven guilty, but it’s tilted so heavily in favor of the prosecutor, based on resources.”
Sadly, the article ends with Acevedo essentially saying that we have yet to reach a point where the system is ready to change. He says, “We’re a few more egregious cases away from people finally taking a step back and saying enough is enough.” Meaning, we need to imprison and/or kill a few more innocent people before a change is going to come.
Why can’t that change come now? Haven’t there already been enough cases of wrongfully convicted, incarcerated and government-funded killing of people to warrant an end to the death penalty and a change to the justice system as a whole? Just look up the cases of Michael Blair, Clarence Brandley, A.B. Butler, Cornelius Dupree, Chrisopher Ochoa and David Shawn Pope, to name a slim few.
The names are too many to list, but I urge you to take a look at the list of exonerees from The Innocence Project. Keep in mind that their comprehensive list does not include the many still fighting for their innocence at this very moment.
There is also strong evidence to suggest the following men were wrongfully put to death in Texas: Carlos DeLuna (Texas, 1989), Ruben Cantu (Texas, 1993), David Spence (Texas, 1997), Garry Graham (Texas, 2000), Claude Jones (Texas, 2000) and Cameron Todd Willingham (Texas, 2004).
While Burke is not on death row, she has already lost a significant part of her life. Aside from Ian, she had three other children who have since been split up and placed in the foster system. She does not know where they are now and hasn’t spoken to them since her conviction, nine years ago. She is in need of a stellar attorney and a retrial.
To be sure, Texas is not alone in its incarceration of the innocent. This is a systemic problem that needs much more scrutiny for change to take place. Hopefully, such change is not too far from coming to fruition. Unfortunately, however, Acevedo is probably right — we are still several innocent deaths away from anything changing, if it ever does.