Missouri attorney general says not so fast on freeing woman jailed for 43 years in 1980 killing

Missouri top prosecutor asked a court Tuesday to put the brakes on releasing a woman from prison in a 1980 killing that her attorneys allege was committed by a now-discredited police officer.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey also said his office will ask the state appeals court to review a judge’s ruling last week that found Sandra Hemme’s attorneys had established evidence of actual innocence. In that decision, Judge Ryan Horsman wrote that Hemme, who has been imprisoned for 43 years for the murder of library worker Patricia Jeschke, must be freed within 30 days unless prosecutors retry her.

Hemme’s legal team at the Innocence Project says she is the longest-known wrongly incarcerated woman in the U.S. They have asked that she be released immediately, saying she poses no danger.

“Ms. Hemme is a sixty-four year old woman whose family is desperate to reunite with her,” her attorneys said in an email to The Associated Press on Tuesday. “She is entitled to be released pending further proceedings and we will continue to fight until she is home.”

But Bailey’s office argued in its motion Tuesday that Hemme has made statements about enjoying violence and that she attacked a prison worker with a razor blade. Hemme pleaded guilty in that attack in 1996.

Horsman found that she was in a “malleable mental state” and under heavy medication when investigators questioned her in a psychiatric hospital about Jeschke's death. The judge also found that prosecutors withheld evidence about Michael Holman, the discredited St. Joseph police officer who was investigated for insurance fraud and burglaries. He later went to prison and died in 2015.

It started on Nov. 13, 1980, when Jeschke, 31, missed work. Her worried mother climbed through a window at her St. Joseph apartment and discovered her daughter’s nude body on the floor, surrounded by blood. Her hands were tied behind her back with a telephone cord. A pair of pantyhose was wrapped around her throat. A knife was under her head.

Hemme wasn’t on the radar of police until she showed up nearly two weeks later at the home of a nurse who once treated her, carrying a knife and refusing to leave.

Police took her back to St. Joseph’s Hospital, the latest in a string of hospitalizations that began when she started hearing voices at the age of 12.

She had been discharged from that very hospital the day before Jeschke’s body was found, showing up at her parents house later that night after hitchhiking more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) to Concordia.

The timing seemed suspicious to law enforcement. As the interrogations began, Hemme was being treated with antipsychotic drugs that triggered involuntary muscle spasms. She complained that her eyes were rolling back in her head, her attorneys wrote in a petition seeking her release.

Detectives noted that Hemme seemed “mentally confused” and not fully able to comprehend their questions.

At one point she blamed the killing on a man whom she met in a detoxification unit. But prosecutors dropped their case against him upon learning he was at an alcohol treatment center in Topeka, Kansas, at the time of the killing.

Ultimately, she pleaded guilty to capital murder in exchange for the death penalty being taken off the table. That plea was thrown out on appeal. But she was convicted again in 1985 after a one-day trial in which jurors weren’t told about what her current attorneys describe as “grotesquely coercive” interrogations.

Horsman found the only evidence tying Hemme to the killing was her “unreliable statements.” There was, however, evidence that “directly ties Holman to this crime and murder scene,” he wrote.

A pickup truck that Holman falsely reported stolen was spotted near the crime scene, and the officer’s alibi that he spent the night with a woman at a nearby motel couldn’t be confirmed.

Furthermore, he had tried to use Jeschke’s credit card at a camera store in Kansas City, Missouri, on the same day her body was found. Holman, who ultimately was fired, said he found the card in a purse that had been discarded in a ditch.

During a search of Holman’s home, police found a pair of gold horseshoe-shaped earrings that Jeschke’s father said he had bought for his daughter.

But then the four-day investigation into Holman’s role in the killing ended abruptly, and many of the details were never given to Hemme’s attorneys.