Why An Innocent Woman Has Been in Prison for 18 Years

Our allies at the Innocence Project, who are featured on this month’s donations ballot, are working to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.

We wanted to share a powerful story about the case they are working on to free Rosa Jimenez, a mother who was sentenced to 99 years in prison for a crime she never committed. It highlights the racism and hurdles faced by LatinX women in the criminal justice system and the Innocence Project’s important work to prove her innocence.

We hope you take a few minutes to read this story, then vote for the Innocence Project to receive a share of our $150,000 monthly donations grant this October.

For nearly two decades, Ms. Jimenez has been trapped in a nightmare she never could have imagined — incarcerated for the tragic accidental death of a child she loved like her own — with no definite end in sight.

In January 2003, Ms. Jimenez was preparing lunch for her 1-year-old daughter Brenda and 21-month-old Bryan Gutierrez, whom she regularly babysat, when the toddler approached her, grabbing at his own throat. She quickly realized the child was choking and tried to help. When that didn’t work, she ran to her neighbor for help.

When the paramedics arrived, they removed a wad of paper towels from the child’s airway and were able to resuscitate him. He was taken to the Children’s Hospital of Austin where he was placed on a ventilator.

Hours later, officers asked Ms. Jimenez if she would come to the station to answer questions about what had happened.

Rosa Jimenez. Video still “Vidas en la orilla.” (Image: Courtesy of Lucía Gaja)

“That’s where everything started — in the interrogation room,” Ms. Jimenez recalled. The officer conducting the interrogation, Eric de los Santos, was allegedly bilingual. But Ms. Jimenez said he could hardly speak Spanish and that the Spanish he spoke was “Tex-Mex” — a mix of Spanish and English, sometimes called Spanglish, used in the Southwest, but not in Mexico.

Language barriers like this are a problem many Latinx people, both immigrants and citizens, face when they come into contact with law enforcement. Almost 30% of Hispanic people in the U.S. do not consider themselves proficient in English, according to a Pew Research poll, and this can make them uniquely vulnerable to wrongful convictions.

“I couldn’t understand most of what he was saying, and he had to repeat himself over and over and over for me to understand what he was talking about,” Ms. Jimenez said. She said Mr. de los Santos told her she could leave at any moment. But Ms. Jimenez, thinking she was there to help the officers, was determined to stay and make herself understood.

Ms. Jimenez consistently maintained her innocence and repeatedly explained that the child had accidentally choked. Nearly 71% of female exonerees were convicted of crimes that that never took place — such “crimes” include incidents later determined to be accidents, fabricated events, or deaths by suicide — according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Like Ms. Jimenez, 40% of these women were wrongly convicted of harming children or other loved ones in their care, often based on faulty medical or forensic evidence.

Finally, after more than five hours of questioning, the exhausted 20-year-old was allowed to return home. Officers arrested her later that night.

Ms. Jimenez had no criminal record or history of abuse. In fact, she regularly cared for children of families in her community, and those families supported her innocence. But, three months later, when the toddler died of complications from the severe brain damage caused by lack of oxygen, Ms. Jimenez was charged with murder.

Ms. Jimenez spent years in the county jail awaiting her trial, and learning English to communicate with officers and to explain that she was innocent. She began by reading the newspaper daily, and little by little began to understand.

Rosa Jimenez holding her daughter Brenda. (Image: Courtesy of Rosa Jimenez)

By the time of her trial in 2005, Ms. Jimenez understood some English, but still not enough to comprehend the racist comments made during her trial. In a 2007 documentary about Ms. Jimenez’s case, “Mi Vida Dentro” (meaning “My Life Inside”), Assistant District Attorney Allison Wetzel is seen asking an Austin police officer on the stand, “Despite being from Mexico, she’s very intelligent, wouldn’t you agree?”

At her trial, medical professionals (who did not have training or experience with pediatric airways) testified that it was “impossible” for the child to have accidentally ingested the paper towels. The trial ended in a conviction, and Ms. Jimenez was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Since then, pediatric airway experts from the U.S.’ top children’s hospitals have all concluded that the child’s choking was a tragic accident and said there is no evidence his death was anything other than an accident, meaning Ms. Jimenez has now served nearly 18 years in prison for a crime that never happened.

Initially, the Travis County district attorney’s office supported an appeal of the judge’s 2019 decision to overturn Ms. Jimenez’s conviction. But in May, District Attorney Margaret Moore wrote in a letter to Ms. Jimenez’s legal team: “Justice would be served by agreeing to a retrial of the case.” She had assembled a team of lawyers to conduct a conviction integrity review of the case and new expert testimony, she said. The lawyers concluded that Ms. Jimenez had been denied the opportunity to adequately defend herself at her 2005 trial — and Ms. Moore agreed.

However, despite Ms. Moore’s position, Attorney General Ken Paxton refused to drop the appeal and is charging forward. And, in the meantime, Ms. Jimenez remains behind bars in limbo.

“I do believe that if I was white and if I was not an immigrant, I would already be home a long time ago … after the first judge wrote the letter to the DA [saying that I am likely innocent],” Ms. Jimenez said. “But nothing has happened, because I’m not rich, I’m not white — I’m an immigrant, I’m nothing, I feel like I don’t have a voice.”

Ms. Jimenez dreams of the day she will be free. She hopes to one day have a home where her mother can live with her and where her children, attorneys, and supporters can visit.

Here are three things you can do to take action on behalf of Rosa Jimenez.

  1. Read more on the Innocence Project’s website: https://www.innocenceproject.org/rosa-jimenez-mexican-immigrant-innocent-latinx-hispanic-heritage-month/ 
  2. Spread the word: https://p2a.co/GfAuVBq
  3. Sign the petition to bring Rosa home: https://www.innocenceproject.org/petitions/free-rosa-jimenez/?p2asource=credo