Women's Project

Women's Project Featured in Mother Jones Magazine

Kristine Bunch

The attorneys of the Women’s Project, and Center on Wrongful Convictions client Kristine Bunch, are featured in an in-depth article by Molly Redden in the current issue of Mother Jones. The article discusses Kristine’s case, the reasons behind the formation of the Women’s Project, and some of the unique characteristics of Women’s Project cases. Andrea Lewis, Kristine Bunch, and Karen Daniel were interviewed on August 5, 2015, on HuffPost Live #FreeSpeechZone.

Update 7/20/15: Hannah Overton returns to prison to continue ministry

Hannah Overton

Hannah Overton, against whom all charges were dismissed in April 2015, has returned to prison in order to resume the ministry work she began while incarcerated. Karen Daniel has written a new blog post, inspired by Overton, about some of the many exonerees who give back to their communities after leaving prison. Overton is also appearing on "The Dr. Oz Show" on Tuesday, July 21, 2015, on ABC. The episode is called "Wrongfully Accused? The Salt Killer Mom Speaks Out."

The Women's Project has been monitoring the case of Hannah Overton since Texas highest criminal court agreed to review her case in October 2013.The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has overturned Overton's capital murder conviction and granted her a new trial, finding that her attorneys were ineffective in representing her.

Overton was convicted in 2007 of killing her four-year old foster child Andrew Burd, who died of apparent sodium poisoning. Prosecutors argued that Overton force-fed salt to Andrew, and then failed to promptly obtain medical assistance for him. Overton testified to extreme behaviors exhibited by Andrew, including constant cravings for salty foods. She testified that she took Andrew to the hospital as soon as it became apparent that something serious was wrong with him. A jury found Overton guilty based on failure to obtain medical care for Andrew. Overton was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In a seventeen-page written opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals found that Overton received ineffective assistance of counsel when her attorneys chose not to call or admit the deposition testimony of an expert in sodium intoxication at her trial. The expert had previously testified in a deposition that Andrew exhibited many of the features of a disorder associated with extreme eating habits, and that if Andrew did have such a disorder he could have consumed a lethal amount of salt voluntarily.The expert further stated that a child who ingested a lethal amount of sodium would not exhibit significant symptoms immediately, and that considering Andrew's sodium levels, he probably would have died regardless of medical intervention. The court opined that the expert's testimony likely would have changed the outcome of the trial. Although Overton also argued that she was entitled to a new trial because prosecutors allegedly withheld evidence that would have shown her innocence, the court declined to decide that issue.

Update: The Nueces County District Attorney dismissed all charges against Hannah Overton on April 8, 2015.

For more information, see Texas Monthly's detailed coverage of the case.

Michelle Byrom released from prisonMichelle Byrom

We have been following the story of Michelle Byrom, who was convicted and sentenced to death in Mississippi for allegedly hiring a hit man to murder her abusive ex-husband in 1999. Michelle maintains her innocence, and according to court documents, both physical evidence and his own admissions suggest that it may have been Michelle’s son who actually committed the murder.

After Michelle's attorneys filed a petition for post-conviction relief, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed her murder conviction and ordered a new trial on March 31, 2014.

On June 26, 2015, Michelle was freed from prison after pleading no contest to a charge of conspiring to kill her husband, despite her claim of innocence.  Now battling lupus and other health issues, Michelle spent 14 of her 16 years in prison on death row.  See the Clarion-Ledger for more details.

Cathy Woods

Cathy Woods: charges dismissed after 30 years in prison

On Friday, March 6, 2015, Washoe County (Nevada) prosecutors dismissed murder charges against Cathy Woods, who spent 30 years in prison for the 1976 murder of Michelle Mitchell.   

Mitchell’s car had broken down and her body was discovered in a nearby garage.  A cigarette butt was found near her body.  In 1979, Cathy Woods, who was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward of a hospital in Louisiana, told hospital staff that she had murdered Mitchell and later repeated her story to Reno authorities.  She was convicted of the murder in 1980, her conviction was reversed, and she was again convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. 

Woods filed a petition in 2010 requesting DNA testing.  Woods’s DNA was not on the evidence, but DNA on the cigarette butt found near Mitchell’s body matched male DNA from two unsolved California murder cases.  In July 2014, this DNA profile was matched to Rodney Halbower.  In September 2014, Woods’s conviction was vacated, a new trial was ordered, and she was released on bail. Halbower has been charged with the unsolved California murders.

Woods’s attorney, Maizie Pusich, says Woods confessed because she wanted to get a private room in the psychiatric hospital. (Woods has recanted that confession.)  Pushich told the AP: “She was being told she wasn’t sufficiently dangerous to qualify, and within a short period she was claiming she had killed a woman in Reno.”  Pusich said Woods is doing well and delighted that the prosecution is over.

Debra Milke

Debra Milke: On March 23rd, a judge formally dismissed charges against Debra Milke. 

At a press conference, Milke said: "I always believed this day would come.  I just didn't think it would have to take 25 years, three months and 14 days to rectify such a blatant miscarriage of justice."

On December 11, 2014, the Arizona Court of Appeals remanded Debra Milke’s case to the trial court for dismissal with prejudice. Milke was convicted of murder, conspiracy, and kidnapping in the 1989 death of her four-year-old son. Milke had been interrogated by Detective Armando Saldate, Jr., who testified that she confessed. Milke denied confessing to the murder and the evidence at trial boiled down to her testimony against Saldate’s.

The Court of Appeals opinion characterized the State as having engaged in “egregious misconduct” by not producing known impeachment evidence regarding Saldate. This evidence included at least seven cases of alleged impropriety by Saldate involving his interrogation methods and honesty, and an incident involving a “sexual quid pro quo” with a female motorist whose car Saldate had stopped. None of this information had been disclosed to Milke before trial.

The Court of Appeals concluded that this material was “highly significant to the primary jury issue,” and because of the State’s severe prosecutorial misconduct, double jeopardy barred retrial of Milke.

Debra Milke was in prison for more than 23 years, 22 of which were on death row. If the dismissal stands, she will become the second U.S. woman to be exonerated after spending time on death row, following Sabrina Butler Porter of Mississippi, who was acquitted on retrial in 1995.

Why Women's Cases Are Different

Innocent women accused of heinous crimes face extraordinary challenges. In many cases, they are suspected of harming their children or other loved ones.
As a result, when under investigation, they are coping with deep personal losses, rendering them especially vulnerable to high-pressure interrogation tactics that sometimes lead to false confessions or seemingly inculpatory statements.
When women—traditionally viewed as nurturers and protectors—are accused of murdering or sexually abusing children, they are particularly reviled by society, including, of course, by police, prosecutors, judges, jurors, and witnesses.
In cases in which no crime has occurred—such as those arising from accidental or natural deaths that are mistaken for homicides—convictions are likely to ensue. Because the evidence in such cases is often entirely circumstantial, identifying wrongful convictions is difficult and rectifying them is complicated.
*Statistics cited on this webpage are from the National Registry of Exonerations as of February 20, 2014