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Judge overturns murder conviction of innocent Missouri woman who spent more than 40 years in prison

A judge has overturned the conviction of a Missouri woman who served 43 years in prison after pleading guilty to a murder in 1980 while mentally ill. The judge and the woman’s lawyer suggested the killer may have been a former police officer.

Judge Ryan Hosemann ruled late Friday that Sandra Hemm, now 64, has established evidence of her innocence and must be released within 30 days unless prosecutors retry the case in the death of 31-year-old library worker Patricia Jeschke. The judge said Hemm’s lawyers were ineffective and prosecutors failed to reveal evidence that would help her defense.

Her lawyer, who filed a petition calling for Hem’s immediate release, said this was the longest a woman had been imprisoned after being wrongly convicted.

“We thank the court for recognising the grave injustice that Hem has endured for more than four decades,” her lawyers said in a statement, vowing to continue efforts to have the charges dropped and for Hem to be reunited with her family.

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Sandra Hemme, now 64, spent 43 years in prison before a judge overturned her murder conviction. (Missouri Department of Corrections via The Associated Press)

Hemme’s lawyers said that her wrists were in restraints, she was heavily sedated and “unable to hold her head up straight or respond with more than one syllable” when she was first questioned about Jeschke’s death.

In their petition for Hemme’s exoneration, his lawyers said authorities ignored Hemme’s “highly contradictory” statements and concealed evidence implicating then-officer Michael Holman, who tried to use Jeschke’s credit card. Holman died in 2015.

“Other than Ms Hem’s unreliable testimony, there is no evidence whatsoever linking her to any crime,” the judge wrote.

“In contrast, this court finds that the evidence directly links Mr. Holman to this crime and the murder scene,” the judge wrote.

On November 13, 1980, Jeschke took the day off from work, and her concerned mother entered through the apartment window and discovered her naked body lying on the floor in a pool of blood, her hands tied behind her back with a telephone cord, pantyhose around her neck, and a knife under her head.

Hemme was not under investigation in connection with the murder until about two weeks later, when he turned up at the home of the nurse who had treated her while armed with a knife and refusing to leave.

Police found Hemme in the closet and took him to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he had been hospitalized several times since he began hearing voices at age 12.

Hemme had been released from the same hospital the day before Jeschke’s body was discovered and hitchhiked more than 100 miles across the state to reach his parents’ home late that evening. Police found the timing suspicious and Hemme was subsequently questioned.

When he was first interrogated, Hem was being treated with antipsychotic drugs that caused involuntary muscle spasms and he complained of his eyes rolling, according to his lawyers’ petition.

Detectives said Hemm appeared “mentally disoriented” and was unable to fully comprehend the questions being asked.

“Each time police extracted a statement from Mr. Hem, his statements changed dramatically from his previous ones and often included explanations of facts that police had only recently discovered,” Hem’s lawyers wrote in the petition.

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A prisoner behind the bars of a prison cell

The judge ruled that the evidence proved that Sandra Hemme was in fact innocent. (iStock)

Hemme eventually claimed to have witnessed a man named Joseph Wabski murder Jeschke.

Wabski, who Hemme met during his stay at a state hospital’s detoxification unit, was initially charged with murder, but prosecutors soon discovered that Wabski was in an alcohol treatment center in Topeka, Kansas, at the time and dropped the charges.

After learning that Wabski was not the murderer, Hemme cried and claimed that he was the murderer.

Police had also begun to investigate Holman as a suspect: About a month after the murders, Holman was arrested for falsely reporting a pickup truck stolen and collecting the insurance money. The same truck had been seen near the crime scene, and Holman’s alibi, which he claimed to have spent the night with a woman at a nearby motel, could not be confirmed.

Holman, who was eventually fired and later died, had attempted to use Jeschke’s credit card at a camera store in Kansas City, Missouri, on the same day Jeschke’s body was discovered, claiming to have found the credit card in a purse left in a ditch.

When police searched Holman’s home, they found a pair of horseshoe-shaped gold earrings in a closet that Jeschke’s father recognized as ones he had bought for his daughter. Police also found jewelry stolen from another woman in a robbery earlier that year.

The four-day investigation into Holman ended abruptly, and Hemme’s lawyers said many of the details that had emerged were not provided.

Hemme wrote to his parents on Christmas Day 1980, saying he might consider changing his plea to guilty.

“I am innocent and they want to send someone to prison so they can say the case is closed,” Hemme wrote.

“Just let it end,” she added. “I’m tired.”

The following spring, Hemme agreed to plead guilty to murder in exchange for not considering the death penalty.

Mallet

Sandra Hemme’s lawyers have filed a motion seeking her immediate release. (MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)

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However, a judge initially rejected her guilty plea, saying she had not given enough details about the incident.

Her lawyers told her that avoiding the death penalty depended on the judge accepting her guilty plea. After a recess and instruction, she gave the judge further details.

That challenge was later denied on appeal, but he was convicted again in 1985 after a one-day trial in which details of what his current lawyers say were “grossly coercive” interrogations were not given to the jury.

“The system failed her at every opportunity,” Larry Herman said in his lawyer’s petition. Herman, now a judge, had previously helped Hemme throw out her initial guilty plea.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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