End the death penalty

Sabrina Butler-Smith: The fight for freedom of the first woman ever exonerated from death row in the US

Sabrina Butler-Smith tells Rachel Sharp how she lost six-and-a-half years of her life in prison, was labeled a ‘child killer’ and was robbed of the chance to grieve for her nine-month-old son. Now, she is fighting to end the death penalty and to stop others being sent to death row - and executed - for crimes they didn’t commit

Tuesday 21 December 2021 14:01 GMT
Sabrina Butler-Smith is still one of only two women in American history who has been exonerated from death row
Sabrina Butler-Smith is still one of only two women in American history who has been exonerated from death row (Witness for Innocence)

2 July 1990. That was the day Sabrina Butler-Smith was told would be her last.

It was the day that the state of Mississippi had decided the 18-year-old should be put to death for the murder of her nine-month-old son.

Fast-forward 31 years and five months to December 2021 and Ms Butler-Smith, now 51, is thankful to be alive and enjoying family life with two of her children in Memphis, Tennessee, as the first woman ever to be exonerated from death row in America.

“I never thought my life would be turned upside down like it was,” she tells The Independent.

In total, Ms Butler-Smith lost six-and-a-half years of her life in prison, two years and nine months of them on death row, for a crime she didn’t commit.

She was labeled a “child killer”, a “monster”, a “sorry mammy”.

But, the worst part of all, she tells The Independent, was that she spent years blaming herself for the death of her baby son Walter and not knowing why her little boy had died suddenly one tragic night in 1989.

“When Clive [Stafford-Smith, a British attorney and campaigner to end the death penalty,] took my case years later, he went to the hospital and got Walter’s records and found out that he had a kidney disease,” she says.

“It was only then that I knew it was nothing at all that I had done.

“Walter was just a sick little boy.”

Ms Butler-Smith was just 17 years old and living on her own as a single mother when she returned from a short jog to her apartment in Columbus, Mississippi, to find her son had stopped breathing.

She was charged with capital murder and, after prosecutors claimed she had beaten her child to death, she was convicted and given the death penalty.

In 1992, her conviction was overturned before she was acquitted of all charges at her 1995 retrial.

Ms Butler-Smith was innocent.

Walter’s death was likely caused by his undiagnosed cystic kidney disease — a very rare and life-threatening genetic condition that causes breathing problems in infants and which her teenage daughter is now living with.

And the injuries on Walter’s body were not the result of beatings but were caused by his mother’s desperate attempts to administer CPR to save the life of her dying child.

While Ms Butler-Smith always knew she was innocent of Walter’s murder, she had been carrying around the guilt of thinking something had happened to her son in the 10 minutes that she had left him alone in the house.

“I was disgusted with myself. I wanted to die myself,” she says.

“It was a heavy burden to carry as it was playing on me that: ‘What if I hadn’t left the house? Could I have done something to save him? What was he going through in that 10 minutes that I wasn’t there for him?’”

Walter was just nine months old when Sabrina Butler-Smith found he had stopped breathing
Walter was just nine months old when Sabrina Butler-Smith found he had stopped breathing (Sabrina Butler-Smith)

As she fought for her innocence and her own life, Ms Butler-Smith lost out on grieving for her son.

“I wasn’t allowed to go to his funeral and I didn’t even find out where he was buried until two years after I got out,” she says.

Ms Butler-Smith explains that she had always dreamed of being a mom because her upbringing had left her feeling all alone in the world.

The daughter of a single alcoholic mother, she dropped out of high school at age 14 and was living on her own estranged from her family.

By 17, she had two children — her eldest son Danny, now 35, and Walter.

“I was trying to find love because I felt so unloved,” she says.

“My mom was an alcoholic and I felt like she didn’t love me. I felt like having a baby would help because I would have someone to love me and that was all that I wanted.”

The night that changed everything

But, on 11 April 1989, every parent’s worst nightmare unfolded for the young mother.

It had become part of her nightly routine that, after putting Walter to sleep in her apartment at night, she would go for a quick 10-minute jog around the block and then feed him a bottle.

That night was no different until Ms Butler-Smith returned to find Walter had stopped breathing.

“It was the scariest moment and I didn’t know what to do — I was a kid I didn’t know CPR,” she says.

“I panicked and grabbed him and ran through the apartment complex yelling for help.”

It was late and most people wouldn’t open the door to her. One neighbour simply told her she was busy and closed the door in her face.

Another woman responded to her pleas, taking her and Walter inside and starting to perform CPR on the infant.

A second neighbour then offered to drive Ms Butler-Smith and Walter to the hospital, telling the young mother to continue to carry out CPR on her son on the journey there.

But, tragically, their efforts were in vain and Walter was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Shocked and scared, Ms Butler-Smith said she went home that night refusing to believe that her son had died.

“I didn’t know what to do. I was confused, lost and upset,” she breaks down, telling The Independent.

“I felt like people must be lying to me that they couldn’t save him and that they must just be trying to take my son.

“I was so out of sorts — so much was going through my head.”

A few hours later, she returned to the hospital desperate for some answers and was met by police officers who took her to a station for questioning.

From that moment onwards, Ms Butler-Smith would spend every day and night for the next six-and-a-half years locked inside a prison cell.

The odds were stacked against her from the get-go: pushed into signing a false statement by police officers; poor legal representation and misleading evidence at her trial; and racial and gender bias from an almost all-white jury.

A four-hour interrogation of a child

Ms Butler-Smith describes how, just hours after the sudden death of her child, she was kept in a police interrogation room for four hours being screamed at by two male police officers. No parent, guardian or lawyer was present.

“I was kept in a room with these two men for four hours after my son had just died,” she says.

“Before I could even sit down they started yelling and screaming and got in my face. I was scared to death and didn’t know what to do.”

The teenager never dreamed that she would be accused of murdering her child but she was afraid she would be in trouble for leaving Walter alone in her apartment.

So, Ms Butler-Smith says her scared 17-year-old self first lied about going for a jog.

“I was sitting there thinking you’re in trouble for leaving your child in the house so I lied as that’s what kids do — I was a kid myself, just because I had my own kids didn’t mean I wasn’t still a kid too,” she says.

“But never in a million years did I think I would be charged with murder.”

Sabrina Butler-Smith with her mother and brothers while she was on death row in Mississippi
Sabrina Butler-Smith with her mother and brothers while she was on death row in Mississippi (Sabrina Butler-Smith)

During the aggressive interrogation, Ms Butler-Smith says she broke down and told the detectives the truth that she had left Walter home alone for 10 minutes.

But the officers continued to tell her she was lying.

“I wrote a statement of what happened and one of the detectives balled it up and threw it in the trash,” she says.

“They were yelling and screaming at me saying ‘that’s not true, you beat your baby, you stomped your baby’.

“They were cussing me, telling me women in my neighbourhood kill their babies, making me out to feel I was nothing and calling me a sorry mammy.”

One of the officers wrote out a statement and told her to sign it, she says.

And, after four hours, the grieving teen - who had never been in trouble with the law before - signed the statement and was charged with capital murder and child abuse.

“I didn’t know what to do,” she says.

“I was 17 and didn’t have a parent to tell me what to do and had no knowledge of how the justice system worked.

“I always thought the right to remain silent just meant to not speak until you’re spoken to.”

Ms Butler-Smith spent the next year in a county jail where she had to “fight to survive” after being labeled a “baby killer”.

Poor representation and racial bias at trial

Then, at her 1990 trial, she says she was let down by a “drunk” attorney who she met just two days earlier, who also failed to call a single witness and refused to let her take the stand.

The district attorney prosecuting her case also “wanted to make a name for himself from my case”, she says, and even took the jury on a picnic during the trial.

Bias from the jury also played a part in her conviction, Ms Butler-Smith believes.

“When I looked at the jury I knew it was over,” she says.

“I was black and poor and I was looking at an all-white, mainly male jury who were looking at me in disgust.

“Nobody looked like me and I knew they had already made their minds up about me.”

She adds: “When you’re given the label of being a baby killer that’s the only label you carry.”

She was found guilty and sentenced to death on 13 March 1990.

Life on death row

Like all prisoners sent to death row, Ms Butler-Smith was locked up alone for 23 hours a day in her cell — which she nicknamed “the box” due to its cramped size.

Even the one hour a day she was allowed out of her cell for exercise in the yard, she had no human contact.

“When you’re condemned to die you’re not allowed to be near or touch anyone so during yard call you’re put in a cage like a dog,” she says.

“It was 24 hours a day of no contact. I wanted to die.”

She was given an execution date of 2 July and, with poor representation and no prior knowledge of the criminal justice system, Ms Butler-Smith says she believed that was the day she would die.

“I thought they were going to kill me that day,” she says.

“I was scared to death and couldn’t sleep — I was listening out for every sound.”

In reality, death row inmates spend several years awaiting their fates, being executed once they have exhausted all of their appeals.

Ms Butler-Smith finally learned this from the woman in the cell next to hers.

Susan Balfour was the only other woman on death row in Mississippi at the time and the two women began talking through a vent underneath the toilets in their cells.

“We were each other’s only contact and we became friends,” says Ms Butler-Smith.

From Ms Balfour, she began learning how the system worked and started using her time inside to find out about the legal system and to send letters to anyone who may be able to help her case.

She also rekindled her relationship with her mother while on death row before she passed away from breast cancer.

“My mom became a soldier for me when I was on death row,” she says. “It drove us back together.”

One of Ms Butler-Smith’s letters was answered by Mr Stafford-Smith and Rob McDuff who took her case pro bono.

The overwhelming impact of freedom

The attorneys got Walter’s hospital records which showed he suffered from the genetic condition not disclosed at her first trial.

They filed an appeal and her conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court of Mississippi which ruled that the prosecution had not proven her baby’s death wasn’t an accident.

At a new trial, her legal team called a neighbour as a witness to show that the bruises on Walter’s body were caused by attempts to administer CPR. A medical examiner also testified that he had changed his opinion on the cause of death and now believed it was due to the kidney condition.

On 17 December 1995, 25-year-old Ms Butler-Smith was exonerated.

She walked out of prison an innocent woman and was finally able to begin grieving for her baby son.

Readjusting to life on the outside hasn’t been easy, however, and 26 years on Ms Butler-Smith admits she still struggles with PTSD from both her son’s sudden death and the false conviction and imprisonment that followed.

“I lost my life, I lost my son and I never got to grieve him,” she says.

“So when I got out I was constantly trying to make sure everyone was breathing on my watch.

“Whenever my family were with me — or even down to the dog — I was trying to make sure everyone was okay.”

She adds: “And it was really hard to trust people again - I still don’t to some extent.”

Being locked inside a cell alone for 23 hours a day has also had a lasting impact on her day-to-day life.

“To be locked in prison and then be able to walk the streets again is so overwhelming,” she says.

“I couldn’t handle it. I was scared of people when they would come up to me.

“Even now I still do some of the things from prison life such as giving myself time limits. I don’t think I’ll ever forget some things.”

But, despite the difficulties, Ms Butler-Smith says she is happily enjoying life with her three surviving children - sons Danny, 35, and Joe Jr, 24, and daughter Nakeria, 18.

Nakeria was diagnosed with the same kidney condition that her brother Walter had and so the family moved to Memphis to be close to the treatment she needs.

“She is doing okay with it as we now know what to look for and what treatment she needs,” says Ms Butler-Smith.

“Now, my daughter is in college, my middle son is in the army in Georgia and my oldest son is working and lives with me now.

“They’re all doing good and I’m so proud of them.”

Sabrina Butler-Smith now enjoys family life with her three surviving children and fights to end the death penalty
Sabrina Butler-Smith now enjoys family life with her three surviving children and fights to end the death penalty (Sabrina Butler-Smith)

Ms Butler-Smith now devotes her own time to working with the Witness to Innocence project, sharing her story with others and fighting to end the death penalty so that other people don’t end up on death row - and being executed - for crimes they didn’t commit.

She has written a book about her experience and she is now in the process of opening a shelter for female ex-offenders and exonerated women so that they have a place to go on leaving prison.

To this day, she is one of only two women ever to be exonerated from death row in the whole of American history.

The second woman Debra Milke spent 25 years behind bars including 22 years on Arizona’s death row for the murder of her four-year-old son, before she was exonerated in 2015.

Ms Butler-Smith fears there are many more people on death row who are also innocent of their crimes and that this is one of the many reasons why the death penalty should be abolished.

“If it can happen to me I know it can happen to someone else,” she says.

“Digging too deep into the box” of what happened to her is still difficult more than three decades on, Ms Butler-Smith tells The Independent.

“But I need to speak out and try to fix the system because this is much bigger than me and it’s the only way to change it.”

She adds: “I’m grateful for what happened to me and for my life now so I’m fighting for people who don’t have anyone to fight for them.

“But, for all I’m now grateful for, I wish every day I could have my son Walter back.”

The Independent and the nonprofit Responsible Business Initiative for Justice (RBIJ) have launched a joint campaign calling for an end to the death penalty in the US. The RBIJ has attracted more than 150 well-known signatories to their Business Leaders Declaration Against the Death Penalty - with The Independent as the latest on the list. We join high-profile executives like Ariana Huffington, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson as part of this initiative and are making a pledge to highlight the injustices of the death penalty in our coverage.

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