Date22 March 2023
AuthorBeety, Valena

The following are remarks from a panel discussion co-hosted by the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law and the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law on the book Manifesting Justice: Wrongly Convicted Women Reclaim Their Rights. **


Thank you everyone for coming today, and thank you to the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law for organizing this event. My deep gratitude also goes to Professors Sturm and Baylor for participating today and engaging with my book; I truly appreciate it.

I wrote Manifesting Justice (1) to share stories that I didn't see being told and being shared. My own story as a litigator, which I weave throughout the book, began with being a Rape Victim Advocate in college. That experience made me want to go to law school and become a prosecutor. I wanted to prosecute sexual violence and domestic violence because I thought that incarceration would stop these cycles of violence. I reasoned that if we incarcerate repeat perpetrators, then we can stop their behavior. I was a carceral feminist.

I went to law school, graduated, and got my dream job. I became a prosecutor and prosecuted domestic violence and sexual violence. That's when I realized incarceration was not the solution I thought it was. Prosecution was not the solution I thought it was.

In most of my cases, the survivors wanted nothing to do with me. They did not want to be part of the criminal legal system and did not want to be put on the witness stand to be judged and re-live their trauma. Many of them also had some ongoing personal connection with the person who was being charged.

In response, I, as a prosecutor, became more and more callous in my own behavior and treatment of survivors. I thought that getting the conviction and following through on a case was the most important thing. Yet even this goal did not ultimately lead to the desired results. Serious crimes were often dropped down to misdemeanors, simply to get a conviction. I quickly became disillusioned.

I was only a prosecutor for a short period of time and then I became an innocence litigator. I started litigating on behalf of people who had been wrongfully convicted in Mississippi. I worked with some clients who were on death row, not as their main attorney, but on their wrongful conviction claims. I moved to West Virginia in 2012 to found and direct the West Virginia Innocence Project. The book tells some of these stories.

Finally, I'm a queer woman, married to another woman. I have a particular interest in the wrongful convictions of queer people and of marginalized women. These are the people I have represented as an attorney and whose wrongful convictions I continue to research and bring attention to as a scholar.

The key story in my book is about Leigh Stubbs and Tami Vance, two queer women who were wrongfully convicted. The happy ending of the book is that Leigh and Tami are reunited with their families after ten years of being incarcerated. Their own wrongful conviction story began with three women meeting each other at a drug rehab facility in rural Mississippi. Two of those women, Leigh and Tami, fell in love. After they graduated from the drug rehab program and were packing to leave, the third woman they had become friends with, Kim, asked if she could accompany them. Kim wasn't doing as well and she hoped they would take her home. Leigh and Tami said yes.

Just over twenty-four hours later, Kim overdosed. Leigh and Tami called 911 and got her to the local county hospital in rural Mississippi, where Kim fell into a coma. The emergency room doctor suspected that Kim may have been sexually assaulted, and informed the police. The police then called in a dentist--yes, a dentist--to examine Kim's body for evidence of sexual assault.

This dentist, Michael West, arrived at the hospital and examined Kim's body while Kim was in a coma. Kim was unconscious and completely naked while Dr. West examined, touched, and video-recorded Kim's entire body. Dr. West concluded that half of Kim's labia had been bitten off. And if you heard me, you heard me correctly.

Who could have done this--except for the "deviant" lesbians Kim had been with? That's how the assault charge against Leigh and Tami started and ultimately ended in their wrongful convictions.

In general, women are more likely than men to be convicted where no crime occurred. In this case, there was no bite mark, and Kim's labia had not been bitten off--that crime did not exist. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, seventy-four percent of women exonerees were wrongly convicted where no crime occurred. (2) One example of a no-crime wrongful conviction would be a fire caused by a malfunctioning space heater. A prosecutor alleges the fire instead was started by a woman; the prosecutor brings charges and successfully convicts her of arson and murder. (3)

Faulty forensic evidence, like our example of faulty fire science evidence, is a major contributor to these types of wrongful convictions. Frequently, where a woman is a caretaker, these wrongful convictions also involve child death or child assault charges. Take, for example, the San Antonio Four: four lesbians in San Antonio, three of whom were Latina. (4) The women were charged with sexual assault of a child that the prosecution alleged was part of a satanic ritual. Their case was just one of many "Satanic Panic" wrongful convictions in the 1980s and 1990s where faulty scientific evidence was presented to convince the jury that the assault had occurred. The San Antonio Four were, thankfully, exonerated a few years ago. (5)

I also want to share, because of this post-Dobbs moment we are in, that prosecutors have charged miscarriages and stillbirths as homicide. (6) I anticipate not only that this practice will continue, but that more people will be charged. These cases often rely on faulty scientific evidence. (7) One example is the "Floating Lung" test from the Middle Ages where the lung of a stillborn is put in water to see if it floats.

According to the test, if the lung floats, then that being took its first breath and was born alive. With that "evidence," prosecutors charge the pregnant person with homicide, instead of acknowledging a stillbirth or a miscarriage. That Middle Ages test is completely debunked, and sadly leads to many false positives, since it is most likely that the lung will float--and yet the test is still used to wrongly prosecute and convict people. (8)

Leigh and Tami were convicted because of faulty forensic evidence and homophobic testimony. We see this character assassination with queer people on trial, where prosecutors exploit biases that LGBTQ+ people are deviant, that they are depraved, and that they are dangerous. Here's the expert testimony against Leigh and Tami from their trial--expert testimony. The expert was the dentist, Dr. West, mentioned earlier.

Prosecutor: So, in ... a homosexual rape case, you would expect to find bite marks, it would not be unusual at all to find bite marks on the skin?

Dr. West: No, it wouldn't be unusual.

Prosecutor: In fact, it would almost be expected?

Dr. West: Almost. (9)

Dr. West then testified that the bite marks indicated a "combative or a sexual orientation phenomenon." (10) He's the only expert, he's the one saying there are bite marks, and that the bite marks show that lesbians did the biting. It's circular reasoning. All the evidence that the state has, is him.

The defense also had an expert, a forensic pathologist. Here is his surprising testimony:

Prosecutor: Would you expect to find biting or would biting be consistent with a lesbian rape type situation?

Expert: Yes ... homosexual crimes ... are very sadistic. The more violent crimes I've seen in my experience are homosexual to homosexual. They do what we call overkill.

They do...

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