GENEVA — Sabrina Butler spent July 2, 1990, pacing her cell in a Mississippi jail.
“I listened for every chain, every sound,” Butler said, “because I thought that was the day I was gonna die.”
July 2 was the date set for Butler’s execution. Her 9-month-old son had died. The police had charged her with his murder. A jury had convicted her of causing his death with a punch to the stomach. As far as she knew, the justice system had run its course.
Butler knew something else, though. She was innocent.
No one came to take Butler to the death chamber that day — isolated in jail, she didn’t understand that ongoing appeals had delayed her execution. But it would take another five years for the court system to clear her.
Her son had died of natural causes.
Butler is the only American woman to be exonerated after spending time on death row. She spoke Tuesday night at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, urging the audience to oppose the death penalty.
“I think it’s wrong,” she said. “I do feel if you commit a crime, yes you should serve time. But I don’t feel it’s our right to say who lives and who dies. Every man and woman has a redemptive period.”
A group of professors and students arranged Butler’s visit. A second exonerated inmate — Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person freed from death row by DNA evidence — will speak at 7:30 p.m. today in the Colleges’ Vandervort Room.
Butler, a Mississippi resident, lost her son, Walter, in 1989, when she was 17.
“I went jogging, and I left my son at home by himself after I put him to sleep, and that was the huge mistake I made,” she said.
When she returned home, her son was not breathing. Butler ran for help.
The first house turned her away. At a second she was told to perform CPR but was shown how to resuscitate an adult, not a child, she said. The hospital could not revive him.
Butler was charged with capital murder the next day. She said the detectives who interrogated her screamed at her and accused her of beating her baby.
“I kept trying to say, ‘This is what happened, and they didn’t want to hear that,’ ” Butler said.
The police wrote out a confession. Butler signed it.
“I was scared, and I didn’t know what to do,” Butler said. “I just wanted it to end.”
She met her lawyers two days before she went to trial. She said one spent the trial popping candies to hide the smell of alcohol on his breath. The jury didn’t seem to listen to anything her lawyers had to say.
“I knew then that I didn’t stand a chance,” Butler said. “I didn’t stand a chance.”
She was convicted on March 8, 1990. She spent 33 months on death row, confined for 23 hours a day to a 6-by-9-foot cell.
Ants often crawled on her food trays, she said, and rats walked through the cell.
“When I got there, they stripped me of all my clothes,” Butler said. “They put bug spray in my hair. They chained me around my ankles, my waist, my wrists.”
Some guards sought sexual favors from the inmates, she said. Some of her fellow inmates were brutal.
Butler faced lethal injection. She spent her time worrying. She thought she would never see her son or her family again
“Why?” she said. “That’s all I could say. Why?”
Butler’s conviction was reversed in 1992 because of prosecutorial misconduct. Among other things, she said, “the prosecutor took the jury to a picnic while they were supposed to be sequestered.”
She was acquitted at her 1995 retrial after testimony showed that the unsuccessful CPR had caused her son’s injuries and that he had in fact probably died from a kidney problem.
In all, she had spent five years in prison.
Today, Butler and her husband, Joe Porter, a corrections officer, live in the same town where she was convicted. She has three children, and she recently published her memoir, “Exonerated: The Sabrina Butler Story.”
But the experience left its mark. She noted that released prisoners receive counseling and other services. Exonerated prisoners do not.
Butler had a hard time finding a job because the case remained on her record until it was finally expunged last year. She had to struggle to get her surviving son back. She found it hard to trust people and she is afraid of the police. She sometimes sees the district attorney who prosecuted her at Wal-Mart.
In addition to dealing with the trauma, she had to get used to new cell phones and other new technology. Jail had been an entirely different world.
“In jail, sugar, cream, those were like gold,” she said. “They’ll kill you over sugar, cream. That’s crazy!”
She said she was angry about what she had been through, but she eventually decided the anger was not hurting anyone but her.
“So I decided to make a choice,” she said. “I decided to live on a positive note.”
Both Butler and Bloodsworth are active with Witness to Innocence, a national organization that helps exonerated prisoners share their stories and advocate against the death penalty.
Butler spoke to a full house; organizers had to bring in extra chairs after people were left standing in the back.