Missouri woman’s murder conviction overturned after 43 years in prison

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — A Missouri judge has overturned the conviction of a woman accused of killing a St. Joseph library worker in 1980, citing “clear and convincing” evidence of her innocence.

Livingston County Circuit Judge Ryan Horsman ruled Friday that Sandra Lynne Hemme, 64, be freed within 30 days, unless prosecutors decide to retry her for the murder of Patricia Jeschke, The Associated Press reported. The judge stated that Hemme’s trial attorney was ineffective and that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that would have helped her defense.

According to The Kansas City Star, Horsman stated that “substantial and objective” evidence in the case ties disgraced former St. Joseph police officer Michael Holman to Jeschke’s killing. Holman, who was later sent to prison for burglary and insurance fraud, died in 2015.

Officials with the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which fought to uphold Hemme’s conviction, were not available for comment, the Star reported.

Attorneys with the Innocence Project said that Hemme, who was 20 when Jeschke was slain, is the U.S.’s longest-serving woman jailed for a wrongful conviction. Her case was overturned once before, in 1984, based on ineffective counsel, but she was convicted a second time the following year.

“We are grateful to the court for acknowledging the grave injustice Ms. Hemme has endured for more than four decades,” her attorneys said in a statement.

The troubling case began on Nov. 12, 1980, when Jeschke was stabbed and strangled to death in her St. Joseph duplex. Her mother found her body, her hands bound behind her back, the next day after Jeschke failed to show up for work.

Hemme and a man named Joseph Patrick Wabski were arrested the following month. Wabski was later found to have an ironclad alibi and the charges against him were dropped.

Horsman wrote in a 118-page memorandum obtained by the Star that Hemme had no motive for killing Jeschke and that neither physical evidence nor witnesses could connect her to the case.

“The only evidence linking Ms. Hemme to the crime was that of her own inconsistent, disproven statements, statements that were taken while she was in psychiatric crisis and physical pain,” Horsman wrote.

The Innocence Project has pointed out Hemme’s long history of mental illness, beginning with a suicide attempt and inpatient treatment at the age of 12. At the time of Jeschke’s murder, Hemme was receiving treatment at St. Joseph State Hospital.

Hemme was on antipsychotic medication and sedatives when she was questioned, according to testimony at a January court hearing. The AP reported that retired St. Joseph police Det. Steven Fueston testified that he ended one interview because Hemme “didn’t seem totally coherent.”

Hemme, who spoke to police while hospitalized, also told conflicting stories each of the eight times she was questioned.

“At some points, she was so heavily medicated that she was unable to even hold her head up and was restrained and strapped to a chair,” the Innocence Project website states.

Horsman ruled that prosecutors committed what’s known as a Brady violation by failing to reveal evidence that could exonerate Hemme, including physical evidence linking Holman to the murder.

A pair of unique gold earrings found in the former officer’s possession were identified by Jeschke’s father as a pair he’d given his daughter as a gift, the Star reported. The earrings were found with other jewelry Holman had stolen during a home burglary.

Holman, who was questioned just once, had also been caught trying to use the slain woman’s credit card after her murder. The AP reported that he claimed he’d found the card in a purse tossed into a ditch.

Holman’s white truck was seen in the area of Jeschke’s home on the day of her killing, and his alibi could not be corroborated, according to the Innocence Project. The officer told investigators he was at a motel adjacent to Jeschke’s home, but witnesses could not place him there.

According to the judge’s ruling, a report about the earrings and FBI reports on forensic evidence were withheld from the defense. In addition, Hemme’s trial lawyer was never given information about Holman’s criminal conduct before and after the homicide.

“The nondisclosure of that evidence resulted in a trial that was fundamentally unfair, resulting in a verdict unworthy of confidence,” the judge ruled, per the Star.

Horsman’s decision also cited failures of Hemme’s attorney, who did not present evidence to the jury about his client’s psychiatric issues and confusion during questioning. The lawyer also failed to bring up the fact that Holman was near Jeschke’s home the day she was slain.

Innocence Project attorneys are arguing for Hemme’s release while prosecutors mull over their decision on a retrial, the Star reported.

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