First woman exonerated from death row shares her story at QU

Aidan Sheedy, Copy Editor

Since 1972, the justice system has handed down more than 9,550 death sentences, according to National Geographic. In 1990, one year after then-17-year-old Sabrina Butler-Smith desperately tried to resuscitate her infant son Walter after he suddenly stopped breathing, she too found herself on death row.

After battling racism, maltreatment and injustice, Butler-Smith became the first woman to be exonerated from death row in 1995 after spending five years in prison. However, from Butler-Smith’s perspective, there’s more to the story than a misunderstanding.

Butler-Smith spoke in front of over one hundred Quinnipiac University students and faculty at the Center for Communications & Engineering to share her story and support the fight to end the death penalty on Oct. 10.

“When you’re scared, you make mistakes,” Butler-Smith told the Chronicle. “And that’s what happened.”

Butler-Smith, now 52, was a minor at the time of the incident in April 1989 and did not perform child CPR properly. Her son was pronounced dead hours later.

In 1990, Sabrina Butler-Smith, a then-teenager, was sentenced to death in Mississippi after being wrongfully convicted of killing her infant son. (Peyton McKenzie)

Being a Black woman in rural Mississippi and lying to police only made things worse as she was convicted of murdering her son following her 1990 trial, in which Butler-Smith said there was hidden evidence, unlawful attornies and an all-white jury.

“They don’t like (Black women) very well,” she said. “It’s evil … They put a kid on death row– I mean, how do you sleep?”

Although her time in prison was shorter-lived than other death row convicts, Butler-Smith said that the prison experience is not accurately represented in the media.

“You watch ‘Orange is the New Black’, and it’s like a fairytale. But that’s not how it is in prison,” she said. “You’re fighting for your life. People want to rape you. People are stealing from you. You have to fight every day.”

There has historically been a staggering racial disparity among those imprisoned across the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 1995, the year Butler-Smith was exonerated, Black people made up 44.2% of those sentenced in federal and state prisons, the most of any racial group.

Between not properly grieving over her son’s death and receiving a biased trial, Butler-Smith said she stayed tough after being located to a maximum security prison for an extended period. There, prisoners were subject to no outside contact of any kind and were placed in a room with only a mattress, sink and toilet.

Despite the adversity, Butler-Smith said she held her ground because she knew her experience was about something bigger than her.

“I refuse to give up because I know that there’s a purpose,” she said. “Jesus got tired, but he still didn’t stop.”

After being released in 1995, Butler-Smith sought out to find her son’s burial location. To her dismay, his body had been placed in rural Mississippi woods by the detectives handling the case.

“That was so hard for me. I was so angry,” she said. “(The police) didn’t say anything. They just did whatever they wanted to do. He had family and they didn’t give my family the opportunity. If you go (to his burial), you will be appalled at what you see.”

After facing inequality and racism in the justice system, Butler-Smith now advocates against the death penalty. (Peyton McKenzie)

Senior law in society major Rebekah Lagassie attended the event and took in all aspects of the story. She said she plans to use it as a guide to being a great future lawyer.

“I am set to go to law school next year,” Lagassie said. “One of the big questions people ask is ‘how can you try someone who you don’t think is actually guilty?’”

That predicament was the situation Butler-Smith’s first lawyer was in. The public defense attorney assigned to Butler-Smith’s case was actually a divorce attorney, so Butler-Smith said she saw her lawyer as someone who was using her situation to get ahead in their career.

“Knowing that there are attorneys out there who will just do (the job) to get a good case on their resume is very disheartening, it’s disgusting,” Lagassie said. “It’s part of the reason why I want to go into law because it’s not acceptable to let things like that happen. There’s no excuse.”

In the audience, first-year history major Daniel Cassiere said he was hit most by the thought that someone has the ability to tell someone else when they die.

“What hit me was her talking about hearing her death date,” Cassiere said. “That feeling of dread and feeling overwhelmed … (Butler-Smith) is insanely admirable.”

Fortunately, today Butler-Smith is living among family, including her husband Jarvious and her three children Nakeria, Danny and Joe.

Butler-Smith has been advocating to abolish the death penalty for over 10 years now. Between her involvement with the Witness to Innocence program and traveling around the U.S. to tell her story, Butler-Smith said that this is her way of getting justice.

“People are learning and they’re learning what happens in these types of cases,” Butler-Smith said. “The more that the stories are told between the exonerees, the more that you’re aware.