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Missouri woman who has been in prison for murder since 1980 will have a chance to prove her innocence next year

Lawyers for Sandra Hemme, who has spent 40 years in prison for a murder her lawyers believe was more likely committed by a disgraced St. Joseph police officer, will present evidence of her innocence at a hearing early next year.

The hearing was scheduled for January 16-19. If her lawyers from the New York-based Innocence Project prove their case, the hearing could lead to Hemme’s release and release from prison.

Hemme, now 63, has spent more than 42 years behind bars for the November 12, 1980, murder of Patricia Jeschke, whose naked body was found on the floor of her apartment along North Riverside Road in eastern St. Joseph.

The only evidence linking Hemme, a psychiatric patient at the time, to the murder was her “extremely contradictory” and “actually impossible” statements from detectives, her lawyers say. No physical evidence or witnesses tied her to the crime.

The Innocence Project claims there is more evidence implicating Michael Holman, a 22-year-old police officer who was investigated for insurance fraud and burglaries, and later went to prison. He died in 2015.

Shortly after Jeschke was found dead, Holman attempted to use the victim’s credit card to purchase $630 worth of photographic equipment from a store in Kansas City, Kansas. A hair on Jeschke’s sheet showed “microscopic features” similar to Holman’s. And Jeschke’s earrings were found in Holman’s apartment – a fact that was hidden from Hemme’s lawyers during the trial.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office did not oppose holding a witness hearing. It was an unusual move for the AG’s office, which has historically fought to keep claims of innocence out of court and uphold convictions regardless of new evidence that might prove a person has been wrongly convicted.

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At a hearing Monday at the Livingston County Courthouse in Chillicothe, a short drive from where Hemme is incarcerated at the Chillicothe Correctional Center, Hemme’s attorneys said they expect to call seven or eight witnesses at the hearing. The AG’s office plans to place about three witnesses on the witness stand.

Hemme – who spent about two-thirds of her life in prison – appeared at the hearing wearing a beige prison uniform. She was shackled hand and foot, with a closed chain around her stomach.

If Hemme is ultimately acquitted at the January hearing, her prison term would be the longest known wrongful conviction of a woman in U.S. history.

Joyce Kays, Hemme’s sister, said their family “can’t wait” to bring her home. This also applies to grandchildren that Hemme never got to meet. Hemme was lifted on Monday when she saw nine of her relatives in court to support her, they said.

Hemme has been incarcerated for so long that some members of her legal team were not alive when she went to prison. One of them graduated from law school the year Hemme was arrested.

Jane Pucher, one of Hemme’s lawyers at the Innocence Project, said they are grateful for the opportunity in January to show what her family “always knew”: that Hemme is innocent.

“She should never have been questioned in the first place,” Pucher said. “And she deserves to be home.”

Hemme’s claim of innocence

Hemme, then 20, was a patient in the psychiatric ward of St. Joseph State Hospital when she was first questioned by detectives about the murder of Jeschke, a 31-year-old librarian. Hemme, who goes by the name Sandy, had a history of mental health issues and was put on drugs so powerful she was “unable to hold her head up,” her lawyers say.

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Detectives chasing dozens of leads during the investigation kept coming back to take statements from Hemme, whose story evolved dramatically over the course of nearly two weeks.

Sandra Hemme as a teenager

Initially, Hemme said she left the hospital the day Jeschke was killed and hitchhiked to Dearborn, between St. Joe and Kansas City, before heading to her parents’ home in Lafayette County. She made no mention of a murder.

In a later statement, Hemme claimed to have seen a man named Joseph Wabski kill Jeschke. He was charged with capital murder – until prosecutors declared him innocent days later when they realized he was in a halfway house in Topeka at the time.

Hemme pleaded guilty to capital murder in April 1981, but she told her mother in a letter from prison that she “didn’t kill that lady”.

The judge initially rejected her admission of guilt, saying she could not provide enough information about the crime. After a short pause, during which Hemme spoke to her lawyer, she gave more information and the judge approved the plea.

Hemme would later say that her lawyer told her she would be sentenced to death if she did not plead guilty.

A survivor of physical and sexual abuse, Hemme’s psychological frailty increased the likelihood that she would make a false confession, a forensic psychiatrist recently found. Her childhood may also have played a role, according to research.

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“Nearly 70% of people under 25 who falsely confessed have been diagnosed with a mental illness,” Hemme’s lawyers wrote in court filings.

Across the country, false confessions have contributed to the wrongful convictions of more than 400 people, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, which has recorded the approximately 3,300 known wrongful convictions since 1989.

Because Hemme’s original attorney did not attempt to have her mental health evaluated, her plea of ​​guilty was rejected on appeal. She was subsequently convicted in 1985 in a one-day trial, during which her statements were read to the jury.

Holman, the discredited officer, was considered a suspect late in the murder investigation. His colleagues investigated his alibi – a story about him having sex with a woman named “Mary” in a motel next to Jeschke’s apartment – but it could not be verified.

Lloyd Pasley, who twice served as interim chief of the St. Joseph Police Department, is among those who believe that Hemme is innocent and that Holman was Jeschke’s only killer. Pasley previously told The Star that a now-deceased lieutenant was also “convinced” that Holman – rumored to be a burglar within his own police station – was the killer.

Hemme’s lawyers argue that she was also not the first mentally ill person to be targeted by St. Joe detectives. Around the same time, Melvin Lee Reynolds falsely confessed to murdering a boy in 1978 after hours of police interrogation.

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