8 Facts About Sandra Hemme’s Case You Need to Know
Sandra Hemme has been wrongfully incarcerated for the last 42 years.
03.27.23 By Innocence Staff
Sandra “Sandy” Hemme has spent more than four decades in prison for a crime that evidence supports she did not commit, making her the longest-known wrongly incarcerated woman in the U.S.
Although Ms. Hemme, now 63, has spent the majority of her life wrongfully imprisoned, she has never given up hope that her name would one day be cleared.
Ms. Hemme was wrongly convicted for the 1980 murder of Patricia Jeschke in St. Joseph, Missouri, after police exploited her mental illness and coerced her into making false statements while she was sedated and receiving treatment for hallucinatory episodes.
In late February 2023, Ms. Hemme’s attorneys filed a petition for habeas relief in the 43rd Circuit Court of Livingston County based on compelling new evidence of her innocence. This new evidence was withheld by the State for decades and pointed to a police officer as the person who committed the crime.
Here are key facts you should know about her case:
1. Ms. Hemme, who had no connection to the victim, was a psychiatric patient receiving treatment when she was targeted by police. At the time of Ms. Jeschke’s death, Ms. Hemme, then 20, was a patient at St. Joseph’s State Hospital receiving treatment for auditory hallucinations, derealization, and drug misuse. Ms. Hemme had spent the majority of her life starting at age 12 in inpatient psychiatric treatment.
2. Ms. Hemme was repeatedly interviewed by police under extremely coercive circumstances. Police conducted hours-long interviews with Ms. Hemme while she was in the hospital. At some points, she was so heavily medicated that she was unable to even hold her head up and was restrained and strapped to a chair. Over the course of these coercive interrogations, Ms. Hemme’s statements conflicted with the known facts of the crime and were internally inconsistent. More than 10% of exonerated people were wrongly convicted in cases involving false confessions.
3. Ms. Hemme’s lawyer presented no witnesses at her trial, which lasted just one day. The jury never heard about the profoundly coercive circumstances under which police obtained her statements. Those statements were the only “evidence” against her at trial.
4. The jury also never heard about the crime scene evidence that supported Ms. Hemme’s innocence. Ms. Hemme was excluded as a source of all the hairs and fingerprints taken from the crime scene. There was no physical, forensic, or eyewitness evidence that linked her to the victim or the crime scene.
5. Evidence pointed to a St. Joseph police officer as a suspect in Ms. Jeschke’s killing. Michael Holman, a St. Joseph police officer, admitted to being near Ms. Jeschke’s home at the time of the murder, and his white pickup truck was parked near the scene. Officer Holman had also attempted to use Ms. Jeschke’s credit card the day after her murder.
6. Police hid evidence that implicated Officer Holman as the person who actually killed Ms. Jeschke. Ms. Jeschke’s uniquely designed wishbone earrings — identified by her father, who had gifted them to her — were found in Officer Holman’s possession, along with jewelry stolen during another home burglary. Failing to turn over favorable evidence to the accused person is known as a Brady violation.
7. Witnesses could not corroborate Officer Holman’s alibi. Officer Holman claimed he was at a motel adjacent to the victim’s home during the time of the murder with a woman named Mary. However, when asked by police he refused to give details about Mary or the motel room they both stayed in. All three witnesses from the motel and attached gas station told police they did not remember seeing Officer Holman or Mary that day.
8. This isn’t the first time the St. Joseph police wrongfully targeted and convicted a person with a mental health illness or disability that made them uniquely vulnerable to falsely confessing. In 1979, 24-year-old Melvin Lee Reynolds, who also spent time at St. Joseph’s State Hospital, was convicted of the 1978 murder of a 4-year-old boy. Many of the same officers who worked on Ms. Hemme’s case also worked on Mr. Reynolds’ case. And much like in Ms. Hemme’s case, officers obtained an alleged confession — a statement that did not align with the known facts of the crime — from Mr. Reynolds after interrogating him repeatedly. Four years later, Mr. Reynolds was exonerated.
Ms. Hemme is represented by Innocence Project Senior Staff Attorney Jane Pucher, Staff Attorney Andrew Lee, and Post-Conviction Litigation Fellow Natalie Baker. She is also represented by Missouri-based attorney Sean O’Brien.
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