Shortly after midnight on April 12, 1989, 18-year-old Sabrina Butler rushed into the Columbus, Mississippi hospital with her lifeless nine-month old son, Walter.
She said she had tried to resuscitate him after finding him not breathing. Attempts to revive the baby at the hospital were unsuccessful. The baby had serious internal injuries.
Over the next several hours and into the morning, Butler gave several different accounts of what happened. These accounts included a fictitious babysitter as well as versions in which she went jogging by herself and went jogging with the baby in the stroller.
Ultimately, she signed a statement saying that she had punched the baby in the abdomen when he wouldn't stop crying. Less than 24 hours after the baby died, Butler was charged with his murder.
On March 8, 1990, Butler went on trial. The prosecution focused on her statement in which she said she punched the baby, noting that an autopsy showed the baby had numerous internal injuries and peritonitis was present—an internal infection that takes at least an hour to appear.
Butler's defense consisted of cross-examination of prosecution witnesses in an attempt to establish that the physical state of the baby's body was the result of clumsy attempts by Butler to revive the baby. There were no witnesses called by the defense.
On March 14, 1990, Butler was convicted by a jury and was sentenced to death. She was the only woman on Mississippi's Death Row.
The conviction and sentence were set aside on August 25, 1992 by the Mississippi Supreme Court which ruled that the trial prosecutor, Lowndes County District Attorney Forrest Allgood, improperly commented on Butler's decision not to testify at the trial.
A defense request for change of venue was granted and Butler went on trial for a second time in December 1995 in Panola County. Butler’s attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, presented testimony from neighbors who said Butler had attempted to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the baby, and so did one of the neighbors. A medical expert testified that the injuries could have been caused by those efforts to save the child.
The defense also elicited testimony from the physician who performed the autopsy that his work had been less than thorough.
The jury deliberated briefly before acquitting Butler on December 17, 1995. She later received $50,000 in state compensation.
– Maurice Possley