On January 2, 1983, 19 year-old James Buckley was shot and killed while working as a cashier at a gas station in Dellwood, Missouri.
The day after the crime, 24-year-old Ellen Reasonover went to the police with information connecting two men to the murder. Reasonover herself, however, soon became the prime suspect in the police investigation.
Police suspected Reasonover for two reasons. First, her timely arrival at the scene of the crime was thought to be suspiciously convenient. Second, the men Reasonover implicated were both in jail at the time of the murder. Police thought Reasonover was trying to send them on a wild goose chase to deflect attention from herself.
On January 7, 1983, Reasonover was charged with the murder of James Buckley. While in custody, Reasonover came into contact with Mary Ellen Lyner and Rose Jolliff, the two women who would eventually send her to prison.
At trial, Jolliff and Lyner both testified that Reasonover had confessed to the murder while they shared cells, and both denied receiving any consideration from the district attorney in exchange for their testimony.
Defense counsel failed to cross-examine either jailhouse informant, and on December 2, 1983, an all-white jury convicted Reasonover, an African American woman, of capital murder. The jury came within one vote of imposing the death penalty, but instead Reasonover was sentenced to life in prison.
In 1993, Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit that investigates wrongful convictions, came to St. Louis to investigate the case. They found a tape recording in which Reasonover repeatedly denied any involvement in the crime--which had been withheld by prosecutors.
Several other pieces of evidence also emerged that cast doubt on Reasonover’s guilt. It was discovered that one of the informants had lied on the stand about her criminal history. Prosecutors had withheld information about the deals struck with both jailhouse informants.
An evidentiary hearing was held during which Gary Davis, a forensic polygraph examiner, testified that he had given Reasonover a polygraph examination and that she was truthful when she denied any knowledge of the crime. On August 2, 1999, U.S. District Court Judge Jean Hamilton granted Reasonover’s petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus and vacated her conviction, and Reasonover was released from prison.
Five years later, Reasonover settled a lawsuit against the town of Dellwood, Missouri, for $7.5 million.