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Female death row exoneree shares story with students

Published: Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Updated: Monday, January 18, 2010 09:01

When you hear her story it sounds like a nightmare. At age 17, Sabrina Butler had a nine-month old son with a heart murmur who stopped breathing in his crib. After a frantic half hour the baby arrived in the emergency room but doctors were unable to revive him.

The next day Butler was arrested for child abuse due to the bruises left by resuscitation attempts and in March 1990 was wrongfully convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death row. At the age most teenagers are attending college, Sabrina Butler was sequestered in an isolated Mississippi death row ward staring down the needle of lethal injection.

“The security guard said to me, you see this place right here? You’ll be here for the rest of your life. We tell you when to get up, we tell you when to lay down. We tell you when to eat and when to sleep. You’ll never get out.” Butler said last Monday, tears welling in her eyes,”Every time I talk about it I get emotional because I can’t change the past but it’s affecting my future.”

Five years after her wrongful conviction Butler was granted an appellate trial and was exonerated in 1995 by the state of Mississippi and released from prison. Two years and nine months of Butler’s incarceration were spent on death row. The District Attorney who wrongly convicted Butler still retains the office.

Exoneration occurs when a convict is proved through a trial of appeal to have been innocent of the crime they were convicted of. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, an organization devoted to research on capital punishment, since federal reinstitution of the death penalty in 1976 there have been 131 death row exonerations nationwide of which Butler is the only woman.

North Carolina is one of 35 states that still utilizes capital punishment.

Last Monday night Butler spoke to UNCG students, the presentation sponsored by Professor Saundra Westervelt and the Department of Sociology. In 2007 Westervelt began teaching a sociology class called Miscarriages of Justice based on her research of death row exonorees conducted since 2002. Butler is the sixth criminal exonoree hosted by Westervelt to speak on campus.

Westervelt’s paper Coping with Innocence After Death Row, written with her colleague Kimberly Cook of UNC-Wilmington, was published last fall in the sociology journal Context.

“Up until really just recently nobody was looking at what life was like when [exonorees] got out.” Westervelt said, “Given that wrongful conviction issues didn’t come to anybody’s attention until the middle part of the 1990s the vast majority of these [exonerations] have happened between the 1990s and now. That’s quite a few in a short amount of time.”

Butler said she was convicted under a felonious child abuse statute passed in Mississippi 23 days after her incarceration. She believes her age at the time of her conviction and the nature of the crime she was accused of sealed her guilt in the mind’s of jurors.

“They already knew what they were going to do before they even saw me. I didn’t really have a chance,” Butler said.

According to Westervelt many death row exonerations are not due to DNA evidence, but rather reassessment of mishandled trials and wrongful assumptions made by the prosecution. Westervelt said many exonorees live in an empty space of society after gaining freedom, not qualified to receive benefits available to parolees but still suffering the social schisms against former convicts.

Since her exoneration Butler has returned to the Mississippi town she was convicted in, remarried and now focuses on overcoming her lost years and raising her three children. Her baby son is also buried there.

“If I want to get a job [my conviction] hurts because once they run it through the system it’s on my record. Even though I was found not guilty it’s still on my record,” Butler said. “I’m studying to be a criminal investigator. I think that what happened to me, if I can help somebody in some way, can be of some kind of assistance that it won’t happen to them.”

Westervelt said that student response to visiting exonorees has been overwhelmingly positive.

Senior Robert Noris is a criminal sociology student who attended Butler’s presentation Monday night. “When our government gives an individual the ultimate penal sanction we often fail to consider the possibility of innocence, blindly assuming the lawyers, courts, judges, and juries have gotten it right.” he said. “Perhaps one day these stories will help to make a positive change to our system, allowing it to be worthy of the term justice.”

Recently, due mainly to nationwide budget cuts, many states are reassessing their prison systems including excessively expensive death row programs. According to Westevelt, “Often for men on death row there is a completely different institution. It’s extremely expensive to build. The appellate process costs a lot but also death row costs a lot.”

Kristen Heffer, a graduate research assistant at UNCG who also attended Butler’s presentation, hopes the criminal justice system will be reformed in the future to eliminate wrongful convictions.

“While the intentions of the Criminal Justice System are noble and reasonable, that’s not often how it plays out. It often ends up being threatening and troublesome and I think it’s important for people to understand that.” she said.

In the mean time Butler said she is the first in line at the polls come election time to vote against the Lowndes county District Attorney who falsely convicted her.

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