America imprisons more people than any other nation in the world. There are 2.3 million people currently serving their time in a variety of correctional facilities across the country.
When someone is put in prison it is with the assumption that they have committed the crime for which they have been convicted. But sadly this is not always the case. It wasn’t for Julie Baumer.
In the fall of 2003, Baumer was in the process of adopting her nephew, her sister being unable to care for him. In October 2003, Baumer took her then five-week-old nephew into the emergency room because he wasn’t eating. The ER ran a series of tests before transporting the infant to a local children’s hospital where doctors still weren’t sure what was wrong. Ultimately, they discovered that he had experienced bleeding in his brain, and a few days later Baumer received a call from the sheriff's office asking her to come in and answer some questions.
In the spirit of compliancy, and having no indication that she was being interrogated, Baumer didn’t ask for an attorney and answered all of their questions. Eventually, she realized that she was the primary suspect in a child abuse case, and in February 2004 she was charged. Her case went to trial in August 2005, and after five weeks, Baumer was convicted of first degree child abuse and sentenced to 10-15 years in prison. She maintained her innocence the entire time.
“I was so sure, from day one, I was going to hear ‘I’m sorry we’ve made a terrible mistake,’” Baumer said. “I was so sure that somebody would realize that there was a serious error and a miscarriage of justice and that I’d fallen victim to it.”
Baumer continued to fight during her time in prison, but after her second appeal was denied in September 2007, she and her family had started to lose hope. In December of that year, the University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic, a group run through the University’s law school that fights to exonerate individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted without the use of biological evidence, contacted Baumer and told her that they wanted to pick up her case.
With their help, Baumer was able to get her case retried and several expert witnesses were brought in to testify on her behalf. They filed for a 6500 motion which would introduce new evidence that Baumer’s nephew had not suffered from shaken baby syndrome, as originally believed, but rather Cerebral Sinovenous Thrombosis, a form of childhood stroke which had caused the brain hemorage. This process took three years to go through the court system and it wasn’t until Oct. 2010 that the jury finally came to a verdict.
“Jail is so cold,” Baumer said. “The day the jury came back and I was called in for their verdict, I went to that courtroom in a sports bra, sports socks [and] thermals because I wasn’t going to freeze like I did the first time. I did not know that within three hours I was gonna have my freedom back. I thought they would say ‘guilty’ and I would go back to a cold jail cell, so I was gonna make sure I was warm. I was wearing a suit with sports socks, it was crazy.”
On Oct. 15, 2010 Baumer was found not guilty and released at the age of 33. She never received a formal apology from the state, but after her trial ended the judge came out and apologized to her.
“The judge came out and shook my hand and said ‘I’m sorry that you had to go through this, and I’m grateful I can now start sleeping,’ because ironically he was the same judge from my first trial, and he hadn’t been comfortable with my case from the beginning,” Baumer said.
Her case demonstrates what can go wrong in the American legal system when pride and ego get in the way of what is right and just. In her second trial, Baumer’s defense lawyer testified that he hadn’t been knowledgeable enough about the medical aspects of her case to provide her with an adequate defense, just one of the many factors that led to her wrongful conviction and imprisonment.
When it was all said and done, Baumer served almost five years of her 10-15 year sentence. In 2016, Michigan passed a bill that states that individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, who later have their convictions overturned, are eligible to receive $50,000 compensation for each year that they were imprisoned.
“I was grateful for that opportunity. I find that number to be laughable, though,” Baumer said. “If I handed you $50,000 would you let me take you from your life, take you from your family, from your friends, and put you in a prison cell and say ‘You have to stay here for a year.’ I don’t know how many people would do that for $50,000. There are a lot of things that can’t be undone, and there’s no amount of compensation that can correct what’s been wronged.”
To Baumer, this is a form of an apology though.
“By my right to submit such a claim, in a sense that’s the state saying that ‘Yes, you were wrongfully convicted and we acknowledge that,’” Baumer said.
Baumer shared her story on Nov. 29 in the Lee Honors College. The event was sponsored by the Department of Sociology Kercher Center Symposium Series, as well as the Center for the Study of Ethics in Society. Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten, the Director of WMU’s Wrongful Conviction Program led the Q and A. The Wrongful Conviction Program is a group, similar to University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic which helped free Baumer, that helps exonerate people who have been wrongfully imprisoned with the use of DNA evidence.
Kuersten applied for and received a $500,000 grant that pays for the testing of this evidence, and she trains students at WMU to investigate claims of innocence. WMU is the only university in the nation that utilizes undergraduates for this type of endeavor.
“My generation, we trashed the system,” Kuersten said. “I think the system is broken. I think one person like Julie is too many. I think it’s your generation that has to come up with the answer. I truly believe that with every ounce of my being. Your generation has to come up with the solutions and my meager attempt to help is to train you all to see what I’m seeing, to see what I know about the system and then maybe you can come up with a better idea, I hope. As the most educated people in American society, you have an obligation to familiarize yourself with things like this because you’re part of the solution.”