Audrey Edmunds is rebuilding her life after her murder conviction was overturned
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At some point, Edmunds realized she was in trouble. Perhaps it was after her first appeal by Strang failed in 1999. Or when the next two petitions for her release were denied. Maybe it was after her first mandatory parole hearing in 2001. Despite being a model prisoner with no behavioral problems, plus immense community support, her parole request was summarily dismissed because she was deemed unrepentant. And in denial.
"Audrey Edmunds loved children. I believe that," says assistant D.A. Rusch. "I believe she properly cared for almost every child she took care of. But sometimes when people do something horrible, they don't want to believe they did it. And after a period of time, they convince themselves they didn't."
Meanwhile, the years ticked by. And neither side found peace. The Beards, who didn't want to comment for this story, divorced. So did Dave and Audrey. For nearly five years, Dave Edmunds fought to keep his family together, raising their daughters with help from Edmunds' parents and faithfully making the grueling five-hour drive from the Twin Cities to Taycheedah every other weekend so everyone could be together. But when Edmunds was denied parole in 2001, Dave apparently couldn't take the strain anymore, Edmunds says, and threw in the towel. Edmunds' friends and relatives began bringing the girls to visit, but now only monthly.
"There were years of tears during the girls' visits," Edmunds says. "It never, ever got easier, and I never got used to it. But hope became my religion. Without hope, you're crushed."
Then, in 2003, Edmunds finally got a break.
The University of Wisconsin Law School's Wisconsin Innocence Project was founded in 1998 to aid prisoners with plausible claims of innocence. Part of the Innocence Network, an umbrella organization of several dozen Innocence Projects worldwide, Wisconsin's has helped secure the release of twelve people. Of the five hundred requests for assistance that pour in annually from across the nation, says co-director and clinical law professor Keith Findley, the group investigates thirty to forty. Priority goes to the strongest Wisconsin-based pleas.
Although the Innocence Project hadn't handled an SBS case before, Findley was interested in Edmunds' almost immediately.
"Her trial and appellate lawyers were convinced of her innocence," he says. "But even more significantly, there was new research which had led one of the State's witnesses against Audrey at the trial to conclude his testimony was in error. Once I heard that, I knew this was something we had to look at."
That witness was Robert Huntington III, the pathologist who performed Natalie's autopsy. Finding the classic SBS triad of injuries, he had testified it was "highly probable" Natalie was injured shortly before she became comatose at Edmunds' home. But Huntington's conviction began to fade just three years later, after he performed an autopsy on another infant with injuries similar to Natalie's. When she was brought to UW Hospital, this girl was described as fussy and clingy, but interactive and responsive, much as Natalie had been in the week before her death. Yet it took trained hospital personnel more than fifteen hours to detect signs of brain injury. To Huntington, the elapsed timeframe between the girl's initial symptoms and eventual collapse now meant it was certainly possible Natalie was injured well before she reached Edmunds' home.
The Innocence Project prepared a motion for a new trial, based on new medical evidence and the current turmoil about SBS among experts. (Physicians generally favor the old science, while forensic pathologists typically side with the new.) But after an evidentiary hearing in 2007, including testimony on Edmunds' behalf by Huntington (as well as five other doctors), Judge Moeser denied the motion. The Innocence Project appealed the decision, and in January 2008 the District 4 Court of Appeals overturned her 1996 jury conviction, ruling Edmunds was eligible for a new trial. In the meantime, she was free.
Ten years and 352 days after Edmunds was led from the City-County Building in shackles (not that she was counting), she was released into the blustery grip of an early February snowstorm and her girlfriends' embrace. The State eventually declined to retry Edmunds and, at last, it was over.
At the time of her release, Edmunds' daughters were sixteen, thirteen and eleven. Natalie would have been twelve. The Beards had both remarried, but neither had other children. Edmunds moved to Minnesota to be near her children, taking a job at a Kwik-Trip and moving in with a friend.
She longs for a place of her own to share with her daughters. But that will have to wait until her finances improve. Although the State dismissed all charges against Edmunds, she isn't eligible for any compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
"I see the struggles she's having and it just upsets me so much," says Edmunds' friend Larson. "Things are certainly better than a year or two ago--she's out of prison. But I'm frustrated she still has all these other things to deal with."
Edmunds is determined not to be bitter. She knows there's no way to reclaim her girls' childhoods, so she's focusing on the present and the future. But she hopes her case draws attention to the new SBS medical findings and helps others in her predicament.
"This was never about me," she says. "There's some bigger purpose to all of this. I just hope it hasn't scarred my girls' lives."
Defense attorney Hurley isn't quite as forgiving. For starters, he's angry with physicians. "This case is all about the arrogance of doctors," he says. "Physicians are asked their opinion, and rather than surveying the data and saying there's uncertain science, they divide into camps that say these symptoms mean X or these symptoms mean Y. They think they're correct and there's no way they can be wrong."
Hurley's also frustrated with the prosecution's blind faith in the legal process. "Half of the medical profession doesn't believe what was said in court ten years ago, yet … the prosecution is unwilling to admit a person spent eleven years behind bars because they were wrong."
Rusch isn't the happiest camper, either. Still convinced Edmunds shook Natalie to death, she says the new science merely confirms the prosecution's initial theory. "Babies just don't die and have all of this bleeding in their head," she says, noting that while the new research now shows retinal hemorrhages, brain swelling and brain hemorrhages can each occur for reasons other than shaking, there have been no documented cases of the triad occurring together unless a baby was shaken.
Wrong, says Findley. "There are indeed numerous documented cases of retinal hemorrhages, brain swelling and subdural hematomas coinciding in cases where there was no shaking. In fact, there are no adequately documented cases in which shaking alone caused that triad of signs; it is only a theory, unproven. Unfortunately, this is another one of those cases in which prosecutors cling to discredited theories of guilt, despite the new evidence."