By Lyndsey Brollini
Seventeen. That is how old she was when her nine-month-old son died. That same day she was arrested for child abuse and the murder of her son.
Sabrina Butler-Smith started performing CPR on her son when he stopped breathing. It gave her son bruises on his chest. The prosecutor aimed to convince the jury that the bruises were caused by abuse, not CPR.
The prosecutor was who the jury believed, and in 1990 Butler-Smith was sentenced to death. She spent over six years in a Mississippi jail for a crime she did not commit.
She spoke about this experience in a panel at the University of Washington School of Law to raise awareness on faults in the criminal justice system, specifically in capital punishment.
Many things went wrong in Butler-Smith’s case, such as being pressured to falsely confess. In the panel, she told the room full of college students and members of the public that no one can imagine the questioning, how it could make her do what she did. For her, it led to signing a statement that she punched her baby when he wouldn’t stop crying.
The prosecution used this statement to build their case against Butler-Smith. For Butler-Smith, however, one thing was evident.
“It was racist,” she said. There was not much hope for her case. She became the only woman on death row in Mississippi in 1990.
Forty-two percent of people on death row in the United States are black. With only an estimated 12.6% of the population being black, Butler-Smith has not been the first to question the role of race in trial outcomes.
Dr. Katherine Beckett, professor at UW, similarly analyzed the role of race in death penalty cases. In a 2016 study, Beckett found that in Washington, “…juries were approximately three times more likely to impose a sentence of death when the defendant was black than in cases involving similarly situated white defendants.”
The results of her study were not surprising for her. She found many studies done in other locations on the same subject concluding that the race of the defendant or the victim was a factor in sentencing.
The death qualification process itself, which screens jurors to ensure they will consider death as a sentence, introduces biases that cannot be totally eliminated, said Beckett.
Research by Craig Hanley, psychology professor at University of California Santa Cruz, revealed other biases in the death qualification process. These include being more likely to sentence the defendant to death and believing that the law disapproves of those against the death penalty.
Butler-Smith did not give up, despite her death sentence. She filed an appeal in 1992 and her case went to retrial in 1995. In this trial, a neighbor gave testimony that supported Butler-Smith’s version of events. Additionally, the medical examiner changed his opinion on the cause of the child’s death to a kidney condition, not the bruises.
On December 17, 1995, Butler-Smith became one of two women to be exonerated from death row in the United States to date. Since her release, she has used much of her time advocating for abolishing the death penalty. It was when she saw people going through the same thing she did that she began her advocacy work.
“Some of those people will be innocent, like me, and most of them will be poor, isolated and African-American or Latino,” Butler-Smith wrote in an article about her experience that ran in Time Magazine.
She believes life without possibility of parole is a better alternative to the death penalty because there is opportunity to fix mistakes.
“If you mess it up, you can fix it,” Butler-Smith said. “You can’t fix it if they’re dead.”
Randal Padgett, another panelist along with Butler-Smith, was also falsely convicted when he was sentenced to death for the murder of his ex-wife Cathy Padgett. He spent five years on death row before he was acquitted of all charges against him.
Padgett was the primary suspect in the murder, and the case against him was almost all built on DNA evidence. The prosecution had two tests done, but failed to reveal the second test to the defense because it revealed discrepancies in the testing.
This second test is what helped release Padgett. In October 1997 all charges against him were dropped.
Once out of jail, Padgett’s hardships did not end. He sold his house and spent his entire savings to pay for legal expenses, so he had nothing when he was released.
“Getting a job is very tough,” he added. Despite being proven innocent in court, the fact that he was once arrested was enough for some employers to not hire him. Now he gets some income from Social Security but needs to use all of it to pay for his house. He still struggles to make ends meet 20 years after being released.
Padgett was never a proponent of the death penalty, but became an advocate for abolishing it after his experiences.
“Just trying to educate the public,” Padgett said. “I was naïve about the justice system before this happened to me.” Before his false conviction, he did not think that innocent people could be found guilty.
“The death sentence can happen to anyone in this country,” Padgett said. Because the criminal justice system is made of humans, there will always be mistakes, Padgett added.
Butler-Smith and Padgett lost years of their life because of mistakes made by juries and prosecution. Both of them said one of the hardest parts of being in jail was the fact that they were innocent and should not be there. They both work to abolish the death penalty so that other innocent people will not be sentenced to death and go through what they went through, they said.
“You can’t give them their years back,” Padgett said.