Innocent mum spent three years on death row after coming home to find baby dead

An innocent mum was wrongly caged on death row after tragically finding her baby son dead.

Seventeen-year-old mum Sabrina Butler-Smith said when the cell door shut she was told "you're going to die here" by a guard.

It took her five years to finally clear her name after she had been accused of battering baby boy Walter.

She was made to sign a confession by cops and told The Mirror how she was convicted by an all-white jury in front of a white judge in a Mississippi courtroom.

Her nightmare started when she came home from a run to find her child dead in her apartment in 1989.

She said: "My son and I were in the apartment by ourselves. I put him to sleep and went for a jog up the street. When I got back I went to the kitchen to get a bottle of milk and then went into the room and realised he wasn’t breathing.

"I started knocking on doors and screaming, trying to get someone to help me. One lady grabbed my son, put him on the floor and started CPR.

"I found a couple to take him to hospital and then ran back in and grabbed my child. This woman who was resuscitating him then instructed me how to do CPR."

After handing her son over to doctors at the hospital, she waited for an update on his condition. She said: "I said to myself ‘you are in so much trouble as you left him in the house’.

"The police started asking me questions and then told me to go home. I thought I couldn’t be honest with them as I was scared. I never thought I would be charged with murder."

However Walter sadly died, and the nightmare was about to get even worse for grieving Sabrina, now aged 50.

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"Before I even sat down in the interrogation department they started screaming like they were going to fight me,” she said. "They told me 'you beat your baby, you stomped on him, you killed him'. I kept telling them I didn't.

"The detective wrote a statement and shouted ‘sign this’. The only thing I thought I could do was sign at the bottom of the page – and not on the dotted line. They charged me with murder and child abuse."

In her trial in 1990 things didn't get any better for her. She said: "I knew these people were going to throw me away. I knew they were going to sentence me to death."

Her attorney didn't call any witnesses, including the neighbour who gave her CPR instructions, Sabrina said. She didn't testify at her trial and was found guilty before being sentenced to death.

She revealed: "When I arrived at death row, a guard said to me ‘you are going to die here’. They put me in a little room smaller than my bathroom, slammed the door and left. I didn’t stop crying for two weeks.

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"When my death date came in I was horrified. I was listening for every chain coming down the hallway. I thought that was the day they were going to kill me.

"You are waiting to die and you have no-one there to help you. You can’t run or do anything. It will always haunt me. They took my life from me for nothing."

She was placed in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day but her case took a turn after she started speaking to another death row inmate, called Susan Balfour.

They chatted through a vent underneath their toilets and Susan managed to put her in touch with British lawyer and death campaigner Clive Stafford Smith.

Mr Smith, already representing Susan, said: "Nobody had bothered to tell Sabrina she would have an appeal before being executed, so she was sitting shivering with fear in her cell until Susie let her know.

"Getting the case reversed wasn't difficult. There had been all sorts of mistakes. They hadn't put forward any defence at the first trial. One of the two lawyers representing Sabrina was very young and the other was hopeless.

"They were up against District Attorney Forrest Allgood, who is a true believer and still thinks Sabrina is evil incarnate. He's a fundamentalist Christian who believes in an eye for an eye."

Mr Smith showed the jury she had been shown the incorrect way to give CPR to a baby and later got doctors to confirm baby Walter's death could have been due to a kidney condition called chronic nephrotic syndrome.

He said: "I asked them (doctors in the case) if they knew what it was at the retrial and they didn't. I then went through it with them and got them to say it was consistent with what they saw. I had no idea at the time but later on Sabrina's second child developed the same condition."

Sabrina was exonerated in 1995 after spending six and a half years in prison and two years and nine months on death row. The State of Mississippi introduced compensation for exonerated former inmates in 2009, and Sabrina was awarded $329,000 (£237,408).

She now works alongside the group Witness to Innocence in campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty.

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