An Illinois mother who has served seven years of a 36-year murder sentence is set to be released from prison after a court ruled she should not be held accountable for her boyfriend's killing of her daughter.
The decision to overturn her conviction is drawing attention to hundreds of similar cases nationwide. In all of them, mothers were held accountable for abuse suffered by their children — but inflicted by others.
In October 1995, in Kewanee, Ill., 3-year-old Jami Sue Pollock was beaten and choked to death by her mother's boyfriend. He is serving a life sentence. But Jami Sue's mother Tabitha was also convicted of murder, even though she was asleep at the time her daughter was killed.
"Tabitha Pollock was prosecuted under a theory of liability that she could be guilty of first-degree murder, not if she knew that her children were being abused, but if she should have known that her children were being abused," Tabitha Pollock's lawyer, Jane Raley, said.
After an appeals court initially upheld the verdict, Pollock's previous lawyer told her the case was hopeless and resigned.
Pollock didn't give up hope, though. She wrote a letter to the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University.
"She writes in this letter, 'I was convicted of murder because I should have known that my boyfriend would have done this. I should have been a mind reader. How should I have known this? This is not fair,'" Raley said.
Lawyers at the Center on Wrongful Convictions agreed.
They took her case and appealed it to the Illinois Supreme Court. Two months ago, the court overturned her conviction, even though the deadline for an appeal had passed.
And, in another rare move, the court ruled the state could not retry her.
During arguments before the supreme court, Illinois Assistant Attorney General Colleen Griffin argued that the precedent set in a case in which the state supreme court upheld the convictions of two women under similar circumstances was that mothers could be held accountable even if they did not know about the abuse, because they should have.
"Once that duty is breached, that's enough to show the shared criminal intent for an accountability case," Griffin said, referring to the case People v. Stanciel from 1992.
Blaming the Mother
Prosecutors are asking the state Supreme Court to reconsider, but even they agree that's unlikely.
"I think the evidence shows that she knew the abuse was taking place and that she did nothing to stop it," state attorney for Henry County Terence Patton said. "That means that, in my opinion, she committed murder and if we can't retry her and get her convicted, then she gets away with murder."
In Illinois and in many other states, parents can be held legally responsible if they know of threats to their children but do nothing to prevent them. Legal experts say there are hundreds of such cases around the country, but none they know of that involve fathers.
"I think society as a general rule, when things go wrong in a family, society always tends to blame the mother," Raley said.
Pollock's lawyers expect that the woman will be released this week.
In Florida, her parents and her 12-year-old son Preston will be waiting.
"I'll be running really fast, glad to see her, giver her a bear hug maybe," the boy said.
"The other day I found out, when her lawyer called me," Pollock's mother Sandy Pollock said. "I was just really, really happy. It's one of the best things in my life."
Even if Illinois prosecutors are not allowed to retry her, Pollock's troubles are not over.
Her parental rights were terminated when she was convicted and her three children are now with three different families. It is not clear if she will ever regain custody.
A Child Unprotected
In a case that raises similar issues, a New Hampshire woman was convicted last week of failing to protect her 21-month-old daughter from a fatal beating administered by her live-in boyfriend. She is facing up to two years in jail on the misdemeanor charges.
Amanda Bortner, 20, did nothing for months while her boyfriend, Chad Evans, abused the little girl.
Evans, 31, was sentenced to 28 years to life after he was convicted of second-degree murder in the case.
The abuse was only discovered after Bortner took the little girl, Kassidy, to her sister's boyfriend in Maine and asked him to babysit her. That man, Jeffrey Marshall, called 911 after he noticed that the toddler was having trouble breathing. The girl died later that day at a hospital.
Bortner said she would appeal the conviction, but the woman's sister said Bortner needed to accept responsibility for what happened.
"I'm just glad Kassidy is finally going to have justice," said Bortner's sister, Jennifer Bortner-Conley.