TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY

Local News

November 21, 2013

Woman shares story of death row pardon

CORBIN — By Becky Killian, Editor

Sabrina Butler remembers July 2, 1990, as she waited in a Mississippi prison to be taken to the death chamber.

Charged in the murder of her infant son, Butler had been sentenced earlier that year to die by lethal injection.

Butler, the 59th person to be exonerated of a crime for which a death penalty was ordered and the only woman, said when her “death day” came, she strained to hear the sound of the jailers coming for her.

Speaking Wednesday before more than 20 people who gathered in Patridge Campus Center at Union College, Butler — who is black — talked about the six-and-a-half years she spent in prison, including the day she thought the jailers would come to take her to her death. She said she didn’t know at the time her execution would be delayed to allow more legal proceedings to occur.

Butler was joined by Kate Mudd, an intern with the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Mudd shared some of the results of an American Bar Association Symposium that found serious flaws in the operation of the death penalty in Kentucky. Among the concerns were a high error rate in cases, low pay for public defenders and confusion by jurors over the instructions they are given during trials.

Butler was 17 when she found her 9-month-old son, Walter, unresponsive on April 12, 1989.

At the time, Butler had been on her own for years. She left her apartment carrying her son, pounding on her neighbors’ doors until one was opened. A woman took Walter and began CPR. Butler then found another man to take her and Walter to the hospital.

Butler didn’t know infants shouldn’t be given adult CPR. She also didn’t know her son was suffering from a kidney disorder that would prove to be fatal.

At the hospital, Butler learned her son had died. She was allowed to hold him one last time.

“He just looked like he was asleep,” Butler told the crowd, her voice catching.

While she still held the now-still Walter, Butler said hospital officials began to question her. Soon she was taken to the police station where she underwent more questioning. She went home but the next day she returned to the hospital to find a detective who said he would take her back to the police station.

For three hours, Butler said she underwent a harsh interrogation by police officers who screamed at her, saying she had beaten her son to death.

Butler tried to explain her son had been bruised by the CPR, but to no avail. The police had told her she had the right to remain silent, but she had no idea she could have asked for an attorney.

Finally, one officer wrote a confession that Butler said she signed.

“I was just ready for them to stop screaming at me,” she said. “They scared me to death.”

It would be almost a year before Butler’s trial was held — during which time she turned 18 and was then able to be tried as an adult. She remained jailed until the March 1990 trial and said she never saw an attorney during that time.

For her trial, Butler said she was represented by two attorneys. One attorney was drunk and the other failed to investigate the case, she said.

Advised by her attorneys to remain quiet and to simply look at the jury, Butler wasn’t given the opportunity to testify.

“The district attorney just had a field day with that,” Butler said. “I wanted to testify, but my attorneys wouldn’t let me do that.”

After the five-day trial, Butler was found guilty by a panel of mostly white jurors. Her death sentence was handed down.

“Me being black, poor, no one to help me, I think contributed to the sentence,” Butler said.

Shackled from waist to feet, Butler was delivered to a correctional facility in Rankin County. She said she was forced to remove all her clothes so she could be sprayed with an insecticide.

“They just humiliate you,” she said.

Butler was then taken to a 6x9-foot cell, where she spent 23 hours a day. She said she saw rats in her cell and found ants on her food tray. She was given 10 minutes to shower.

Then, in an unexpected move, Butler said her original attorney — the one who failed to investigate her case — wrote an appeal on her behalf. That appeal resulted in a ruling that found that 23 violations and prosecutorial misconduct occurred in her original trial.

A second trial was held. After four days of testimony and evidence that included a more complete autopsy report than what was available in her first trial, the matter went before the jury. After an hour’s deliberation, Butler was found innocent on Dec. 17, 1995.

Although she had been exonerated in her son’s murder, the record of the charge — when combined with a prior charge of accessory to burglary that Butler said happened when an abusive boyfriend forced her to forge stolen checks — left her jobless from 1995 to 2009. In June 2012, Butler said she began to receive checks from the state of Mississippi due to the wrongful conviction.

Butler, now 43, has been married for 18 years. Among her children is a daughter who suffers the same kidney disorder that killed her son, Walter. She lives in the same Mississippi town and sometimes, when she is in Walmart, she has seen the district attorney who convicted her.  

For three years, Butler has toured, telling people her story and asking for the death penalty to be abolished.

“This is my way of healing, by talking to other people,” Butler said.

She said those who condemn others to death for murder are guilty of the same crime.

“Murderers murder. You’re doing the same thing,” Butler said.

More information about Butler can be found at http://sabrinabutler.webs.com. The results of the American Bar Association Symposium are at www.ambar.org/kentucky.

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