Three and a half years ago I had just finished writing my second book, Choice, and I was ready to start researching my next novel. As the daughter of a criminal defense attorney, justice has always been a topic of interest to me and one I wanted to write about in some form. Thinking about the criminal justice system in terms of literature and films on the subject, it struck me at the time that there were not as many stories depicting women in prison as there were on their male counterparts. I decided that my next project would be to write from the point-of-view of a female behind bars.
To write a fictional tale on the subject without having experienced prison myself, I knew I had to reach out to someone who had. In February of 2009, I went online and googled “prison pen pals,” which led me to WriteAPrisoner.com. Knowing how renowned Texas is for having high incarceration rates, not to mention death penalty rates, I narrowed my search for a woman in the Texas criminal justice system. Within a few pages the photo of one woman caught my eye.
Elizabeth Burke was one of the few white women in the results with a sweet smile and bright eyes. I clicked on her profile and found a brief description of her: born August 23, 1976; blue eyes; red hair, single; hometown of Houston, Tex.; incarcerated since 2002; earliest release 2079. And then her charge, which stood out like a stark gash on the page:
The face of this woman did not coincide with such a heinous crime and, at that moment, I had to know more. I wrote Elizabeth a brief email, telling her who I was and that I was interested in hearing about her case. I gave her my address and, within a week, she wrote me back, detailing the incident that landed her in the Mountain View Unit — a maximum security prison — in Gatesville, Tex.
Elizabeth Jane Burke was sentenced to 77 years in prison in 2003 for the smothering death of her seven-week-old son, Ian, who passed away on October 14, 2002. She was offered a plea bargain for a 15 year sentence if she pled guilty, but Elizabeth has always maintained her innocence and chose to go to trial instead.
Over the years of our correspondence, I have done extensive research into Elizabeth’s case. I have read through the entire court transcript several times over and found areas that call into question the outcome of the trial.
Other facts have come to light since Elizabeth’s incarceration that also make one wonder whether her proposed innocence isn’t, in fact, the truth.
The medical examiner on the 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. Shrode 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.
Living in a trailer park under impoverished circumstances, Elizabeth could not afford a lawyer. I was shocked at how her court-appointed attorney handled her case. He waived a Daubert hearing, a ruling of evidence regarding the admissibility of expert witnesses’ testimony during federal legal proceedings. One “expert” brought in to counteract Shrode’s testimony had not practiced in over 30 years and was ripped apart by prosecution.
The list of possible errors and mishaps that led to Elizabeth’s imprisonment goes on. After compiling all of this information for myself, I reached out to The Innocence Project of Texas for assistance and encouraged Elizabeth to do the same. Neither Elizabeth nor I have the funds to secure an attorney, and I knew this organization was our best bet to investigate her son’s death, her trial and the possibility of securing a retrial.
As of last year, we got a response — they are going to investigate.
Considering that The Innocence Project of Texas receives upwards of 150 letters a week asking for their assistance in claims of wrongful imprisonment, their reaching out and accepting Elizabeth’s case for investigation is a major step — my belief in her innocence, or at least my belief that there was a serious miscarriage of justice in her case and trial, has been substantiated.
What started out as research for a fictional tale of a woman behind bars has become so much more — a crusade to help a friend receive the justice she so desperately deserves.
Aside from Ian, Elizabeth has 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. The Innocence Project of Texas may help her get just that.