Sabrina Butler was seventeen when her nine
month old child stopped breathing. Sabrina took her baby to the
hospital, where doctors tried but failed to resuscitate him. She
was later questioned by police and arrested the same day her young
She was convicted of child abuse and capital
murder, and sentenced to death. Her conviction was overturned by
the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1992. (Butler v. State, 608 So.2d
314 (Miss. 1992)). The court held that the prosecution had failed
to prove that the incident was anything more than an accident. She
was acquitted in re-trial on Dec. 17, 1995.
Sabrina Butler, an
African-American woman, spent five years on Death Row in
Mississippi after being convicted of killing her infant son,
Walter, in 1990.
During the trial, the prosecution claimed that
Sabrina killed the child with ablow to the stomach. According to
the defense, Sabrina, who was 18 at the time and was borderline
mentally retarded, discovered the child not breathing and, after
attempting to resuscitate him, took him to a hospital emergency
room. Walter was pronounced dead on arrival.
The state charged and convicted Sabrina of child
abuse and murder – a capital offense.
Sabrina gave conflicting versions of what
happened to the authorities, possibly because of her shock and
panic over her son’s death, compounded by the effects of her
borderline mental retardation and inability to explain herself
clearly. These contradictions were used against her at trial.
Defense attorneys contended that the child’s
injuries were caused by Sabrina’s attempts to resuscitate him, but
failed to provide adequate evidence to support this theory. The
Mississippi Supreme Court overturned Sabrina’s conviction and
sentence in 1992.
Ather second trial in 1995, a leading death
penalty defense lawyer represented Sabrina. The lawyer called
different witnesses, including a neighbor who had tried to help
Sabrina reviveher son and who corroborated Sabrina’s version of
events. The lawyer also got the physician who conducted the
autopsy to admit that his work had been inadequate. After a very
brief jury deliberation, Sabrina was acquitted.
Authorities now believe that the baby died of
cystic kidney disease or sudden infant death syndrome, not as a
result of any criminal behavior.
was a Mississippi teenager who was convicted of murder and child
abuse in the death of her nine month old son. She was later
exonerated of all wrongdoing.
Death of baby
On April 12, 1989, teenage mother Sabrina
Butler rushed her nine month old son, Walter Dean Butler, to the
hospital after he suddenly stopped breathing. Doctors had
attempted to resuscitate the child for thirty minutes, but failed,
and Sabrina's baby died the next day. The very day of her son's
death, Sabrina was arrested for child abuse due to the bruises
left by her resuscitation attempts.
Sabrina Butler's murder trial commenced on
March 8, 1990. At the trial, prosecutors sought to prove that
Sabrina's account of the events leading to her son's death were
false, and that she had inflicted the fatal wounds intentionally.
Sabrina Butler did not testify at her trial. Sabrina was convicted
of both murder and child abuse following her trial, and even
though she was only a teenager, she became the only woman on
Mississippi's Death Row in 1990, condemned to die by lethal
Following her conviction, Sabrina filed an
appeal with the Supreme Court of Mississippi on several bases. The
courts reversed and remanded her convictions on August 26, 1992.
The court said that the prosecution had failed to prove that the
incident was anything more than an accident.
In 1995, Sabrina Butler's case went to retrial.
By this time, more evidence emerged about how Sabrina did not
murder her son. At the trial, one of Sabrina's neighbors had come
forward with evidence that corroborated her account: that the
injuries to her son occurred during the course of an unsuccessful
attempt to administer CPR. In addition, the medical examiner
changed his opinion about Walter's cause of death, which he now
believed occurred due to a kidney malady. On December 17, 1995,
Sabrina was acquitted and exonerated.
When Sabrina was acquitted of murder, she had
spent more than five years in prison and thirty-three months on
death row. She is still the only woman in the United States
exonerated after being sentenced to death row. Today, she is
living in the same Mississippi town in which she was convicted,
has remarried, and is raising three children. She is now hoping to
be a criminal investigator.
Five years after being convicted in Mississippi
of murdering her 9-month-old child, Sabrina Butler, here with her
husband, was acquitted in a new trial.
(Photo Credit: Michael S.
Green, Associated Press)