A Conviction Integrity Unit gives the justice system one more chance to get it right.

AuthorLaw, Victoria

In October 2000, Sarah Pender, then twenty-one, was living with her boyfriend, Richard Hull, whom she had met only a few months earlier. They were sharing their two-bedroom house in Indianapolis with another couple, Andrew Cataldi and his girlfriend, Trish Nordman. Hull and Cataldi used and sold cannabis, methamphetamines, and LSD.

One week before Halloween, Hull, whose previous felony convictions for auto theft and residential entry prevented him from buying a gun, asked Pender if she would purchase one for him, saying he wanted to "go out in the country and shoot stuff!' Pender assumed he planned to go hunting. That morning, the couple went to Walmart where she purchased a twelve-gauge shotgun and ammunition.

That night, Hull and Cataldi argued, as they often did. Pender went for a walk. While she was gone, Hull fatally shot Cataldi and Nordman. When Pender returned, Hull asked her to help dispose of the bodies. Pender, in a series of emails for this article, says she was never afraid of her boyfriend before but felt at that moment that angering him could be dangerous.

She helped him take the bodies to a nearby dumpster, where they were later found.

The following week, both Hull and Pender were arrested and charged with murder. At Pender's trial, deputy prosecutor Larry Sells introduced a letter, allegedly penned by Pender, admitting to Hull that she had manipulated him into committing the murders.

Another damning piece of evidence was the testimony of Floyd Pennington, who was locked up in the same jail as Pender. The two exchanged letters through one of Pennington's family members. They talked about books, music, and politics, Pender recalls in a series of phone calls and emails to The Progressive. Pennington sometimes asked about her case, but Pender says she never discussed it.

On the stand, however, Pennington testified that Pender had confessed to him. The jury believed Pennington and found her guilty. At sentencing, Sells called Pender a "female Charles Manson," insinuating that she had been the mastermind behind the murders. She was sentenced to 110 years in prison.

Hull pled guilty, avoiding trial, and was sentenced to seventy-five years, later increased to ninety years. In 2003, he submitted an affidavit stating that he alone had killed the couple. "Sarah was set up by me... so I could get a good plea," he wrote. (Hull declined to speak to The Progressive, writing only, "I do wish Sarah the best but I have to do what is in my best interest.")

That wasn't the only exculpatory evidence that emerged: In September 2019, a man named Steve Logan submitted an affidavit admitting that he had forged the letter that was supposedly sent by Pender, in exchange for Hull's protection from other men at the jail. (Logan did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

Despite these revelations, Pender remains at the Rockville Correctional Facility, Indiana's largest women's prison. She is now forty-two, having spent two decades behind bars; if she isn't pardoned or exonerated, it's where she will die.

Last December, Ryan Mears, the district attorney of Marion County, Indiana, which includes Indianapolis, announced the formation of a Conviction Integrity Unit, the first of its kind in Indiana. Its purpose is "to prevent, identify, and remedy wrongful convictions by conducting fact-based reviews of past convictions."

When Pender first heard about the unit, she recalls, "I was convinced that the universe was answering twenty years of prayers."

Since 1989, nearly 2,800 people in the United States have been exonerated of crimes for which they were once found guilty, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.


To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT