Mississippi woman tells of her years on death row

Special to The Record

Sabrina Butler

Sabrina Butler

SPRINGFIELD, Ky. — A woman exonerated from death row stopped by St. Catharine College late last month to discuss her experience and the shortcomings of the death penalty.

Sabrina Butler, from Columbus, Miss., traveled to Washington County with help from the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (KCADP) and Witness to Innocence.

Accompanying her and also speaking was Father Patrick Delahanty from Louisville, who is the chair of KCADP.

“The death penalty (people may) support is probably not the one we use,” Father Delahanty said. “Because the death penalty that people support or the one they think about is the one where innocent people don’t get executed.”

The type of death penalty people support is one where prosecutors don’t commit misconduct and police don’t hide evidence, he said.

“That’s the one they support but that’s not the one that exists,” Father Delahanty said. “Sixty percent of the cases in Kentucky of people who end up on death row have been overturned by the courts because their rights were violated, there were flaws in the conduct of the trial and they’re not out (of prison). They committed a crime but not a crime that merited the death penalty.”

Delahanty pointed out that Catholic social teaching says the death penalty shouldn’t be used except in rare circumstances.

Timothy McVeigh and Saddam Hussein, he said, may be considered rare circumstances by some. But, Catholic bishops opposed the death penalty in both cases, he said.

“So what might seem like rare circumstances, whatever those are have not yet been determined yet but we know what they aren’t,” Father Delahanty said.

He added that the national trend is going away from the death penalty and that polling in 2006 by the University of Kentucky research center showed that 67 percent of Kentuckians prefer a sentence other than death.

Butler told the crowd in Pettus Auditorium that she was accused of killing her son in 1989. One day, she said, she returned home to find that her son had stopped breathing. Unsure of what to do, she ran to a neighbor’s house for help.

Butler said she administered CPR to her son all the way to the hospital.

After waiting what seemed like forever at the hospital, she said, she was told there was nothing that could be done for her son.

“So that began the whirlwind of me going through all of this,” Butler said.

She went to the police station for questioning; she was afraid she would be locked up for leaving her son at home alone. After the initial round of questioning, she was sent home. When she visited the hospital to check on the autopsy report, however, she was taken back into custody by police.

Butler, who was 17 at the time, said she was not a smart teenager. She was married at age 14; quit school in the eighth grade. She was trying to raise two kids, she said, without actually knowing how to be a mother.

Police took advantage of her situation, she said.

“So when I got down to the police station they started questioning me, screaming at me, saying, ‘You killed your baby. You stomped the baby. You beat the baby.’ I was trying to tell them what happened. They were balling up the story I was writing and throwing it in the trash. The detective wrote out the statement that they used to convict me on the first trial,” she said.

During that first trial, she said, she was appointed an attorney who appeared drunk during the court proceedings. Another attorney, she said, didn’t do the proper investigative work.

The prosecuting attorney took the jury to a picnic when they were supposed to be sequestered, she added. The witnesses that were supposed to be used for her in her case were subpoenaed and locked away. Her attorneys never let her take the stand, which the prosecuting attorney used against her, she said.

“He was like, ‘Aw, she’s just a monster. She’s not taking the stand. She’s not telling you all what she did to the baby,’ ” Butler said.

The trial lasted five days and she was found guilty. She was sentenced to die by lethal injection. She was sentenced March 8, 1990. Her death date was to be July 2 of that year.

Her prison experience was the hardest to talk about, she said.

When she arrived, she was stripped of her clothes, sprayed with bug spray and fingerprinted.

“They just treat you like you’re nothing,” Butler said. “The security guard told me, ‘Look out there. You see all those inmates right there? We tell them when to go to sleep, when to get up. But you, you’ll die here.’ I just, I lost it.”

Butler said she lived in a cell that was six feet by nine feet. She spent 23 hours a day locked up, with one hour for time in the yard. Sometimes there were bugs on her lunch tray, she said.  Other times she would have rats in her cell.

After two years and nine months, her case was overturned. She thought she would go free, but she had to wait in jail for three more years for a new trial.

A new set of jurors and attorneys found out that her son had heart and kidney problems not previously discovered. After a four-day trial, it took the jurors one hour to exonerate her, she said. She was acquitted on Dec. 18, 1995.

She’s written a book called Exonerated: The Sabrina Butler Story, and uses her speaking engagements to try and help death penalty abolition groups.

“I think a lot about how I almost lost my life and how God said no to the devil and he gave me back my life,” Butler said. “I just feel like this is what he wants me to do. I will do it until I can’t do it anymore.”

Delahanty emphasized that those that feel the death penalty should be abolished need to take action.

“You have to pick a phone up. You’ve got to send an email. You’ve got to contact a legislator to say, ‘This has to change. I don’t want to be part of a society that kills people by mistake,’ ” he said.

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