MO woman convicted of murder and imprisoned more than 40 years is innocent, judge rules

A Missouri judge ruled Friday there is “clear and convincing” evidence that a woman imprisoned for more than four decades in Missouri is innocent.

Attorneys for Sandra “Sandy” Hemme, now 64, immediately moved to free her from Chillicothe Correctional Center. If released, Hemme’s prison term will mark the longest known wrongful conviction of a woman in U.S. history.

Hemme was convicted in a 1980 murder in St. Joseph. In an 118-page memorandum, Livingston County Circuit Judge Ryan Horsman said “evidence directly” ties a now-deceased police officer to the killing of Patricia Jeschke.

His decision comes after a three-day evidentiary hearing in January where Hemme’s legal team presented arguments supporting her innocence. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office fought to uphold her conviction.

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to an email and text message sent Saturday morning seeking comment.

Horsman wrote that violations in Hemme’s case occurred in two ways: The state did not hand over exculpatory evidence to Hemme’s defense, resulting in what is known as a Brady violation, and her trial attorney fell “below professional standards.”

Buchanan County prosecutors now have 30 days to decide whether to re-try Hemme or dismiss the charges.

Judge’s findings

Horsman noted that no forensic evidence connected Hemme to the murder. She did not have a motive and there were no witnesses tying her to the crime.

“The only evidence linking Ms. Hemme to the crime was that of her own inconsistent, disproven statements, statements that were taken while she was in psychiatric crisis and physical pain,” Horsman said in the order.

A detective admitted that Hemme, who was on anti-psychotic medication and sedatives, was “not totally cognizant of what was going on.” Over a series of interviews while she was hospitalized, she told conflicting stories. At one point, she said a man who picked her up from the hospital was the killer. Investigators discovered he was in a locked detox facility in Kansas at the time of the murder and the capital murder charge against him was dropped.

Evidence instead points to Michael Holman, a former St. Joseph police officer who later went to prison for another crime and died in 2015. He was questioned once in Jeschke’s death. Horsman said Holman’s “links to the murder are substantial and objective.”

Holman’s truck was seen in the area the day of the murder, his alibi could not be corroborated and he used Jeschke’s credit card after he said he found it in a purse in a ditch. A pair of gold horseshoe-shaped earrings identified by Jeschke’s father was also found in Holman’s possession.

Horsman said a report about the earrings was never turned over to Hemme’s defense attorney. Three FBI reports on forensic evidence were also not disclosed. Information about Holman’s criminal conduct in the months before and after the murder were also withheld.

“The nondisclosure of that evidence resulted in a trial that was fundamentally unfair, resulting in a verdict unworthy of confidence,” Horsman’s order said.

He also found that Hemme’s trial counsel was ineffective. Her attorney failed to use evidence showing Holman was near Jeschke’s home and did not locate or interview him as an alternative suspect. The attorney also failed to present evidence about Hemme’s psychiatric distress and confusion.

“This court can thus reach the merits of Ms. Hemme’s claims because she is the victim of a manifest injustice,” Horsman wrote.

Hemme has been in prison for more than 43 years.

Horsman could grant Hemme’s release while prosecutors decide if she will be re-tried or if the case will be dismissed. In arguing for her release, her attorneys said she is an elderly woman with health conditions who is not a flight risk. She has family in Missouri who she would reside with.

Several wrongful convictions have been brought to light in recent years in the Kansas City metro. Ricky Kidd, Kevin Strickland and Keith Carnes were exonerated in Kansas City cases. Lamonte McIntyre and Olin “Pete” Coones were freed in Kansas City, Kansas, cases. The five together spent 119 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.