“Who gets found guilty if they’re not guilty?”
February 3, 2017
Harrison Township, MI, 2003—Julie Baumer was only trying to do one thing: support her family. Her sister Victoria—a drug addict at the time—had suffered from the traumatic birth of her son, Philipp, and could no longer take care of him. Baumer, who was working as a mortgage loan officer at the time, agreed to step in and take care of Philipp. He was just released after two weeks in the hospital, but was put on a strict feeding schedule. Baumer continued to care for him, and for four weeks, things seemed to go as planned. Then one Thursday in October, at a baptismal class at St. Peter’s Parish in Mt. Clemens, Father Cooney expressed concerns to Baumer.
“Phillip’s not looking that good,” he said to her.
Father Cooney was right. Philipp wasn’t able to to keep any food down. On the advice of her father and pediatrician, Baumer picked her up her sister from her job at Coney Island and they rushed Philipp to the hospital.
At Mt. Clemens General Hospital, an MRI and CAT scan were taken of Philipp’s brain. In need of better care, Philipp was then transferred to a children’s hospital. However these initial scans—which revealed that he was having a stroke—were not given to the doctors at the second hospital. The following day, nurses measured Philipp’s head and found that it had grown since they released him. They took new CAT scans and MRIs, and it was then that doctors saw bleeding in the brain, and misdiagnosed Philipp as a victim of shaken-baby-syndrome. In that moment, the doctors failed to see a part of the CAT scan that clearly showed Philipp had suffered a childhood stroke called venous sinus thrombosis. What happened next was nothing that Baumer expected.
“And so, of course, with my being the primary caretaker, and my being the last one being with Philipp, all fingers pointed at me,” Baumer said.
Out Of Her Control
Matters were quickly taken out of her hands. Because she was the prime suspect, all contact was cut off between her and Philipp. Members of Baumer’s family tried to get custody of Philipp. Both of her sisters were denied to right to take him. Baumer’s parents tried to fight, but were told that if they were going to have him in their home, they could not have contact with their daughters. They knew that no contact with Baumer would not be possible, and with that, Philipp became a ward of the state, and later became adopted by a foster family.
In February of 2004, she received a call from the adoption attorney handling Philipp’s case, telling her she had 72 hours to turn herself in and find a criminal attorney. Baumer, still in her early 20s, did not have the resources or knowledge at the time to realize the level of attorney she really needed to protect her. This came back to hurt her later in the trial. Baumer was formally charged a week later. The trial began in September of 2005.
Baumer continued to believe in her innocence. Throughout the trial, she continued to work as a mortgage loan officer, as the job allowed her to work on her own schedule. Nonetheless, she kept these two parts of her life separate.
“You can almost say I lived a double life,” Baumer said. “I didn’t tell anybody outside of the family what was happening to me legally because [I believed] I was going to be found not guilty. I was going to get Philipp back and I was just going to resume my life. That’s what I wholeheartedly believed. I did not think at any time that I would be found guilty. I was just like— it’s absurd.”
What Baumer “wholeheartedly believed” did not happen. Her defense appeared to be very weak in court. Her inexperienced attorney did not know to ask the court for funds to hire experts to review the brain scans. Without the help of these experts, Baumer was left helpless. The doctors’ testimony convinced the jury that Philipp was a victim of shaken baby syndrome. In Sept. of 2005, after a four-week trial, Baumer was found guilty, taken into custody and then to the county jail. 40 days later, she was brought back to court for a sentencing. The judge told her 10-15 years. Then, she went to prison.
Four Long Years
Baumer’s new living space was now 6-by-6 foot area shared with a stranger.
“Prison isn’t like they have it on TV,” Baumer said. “They try to dehumanize you, they take your name away, they assign you a number, and you are property of the state. And they remind you of this.”
For Baumer, the most difficult part was how much she had to deal with things alone.
“Yeah, you’re in a sh**** environment, but you don’t get to go home,” she said. “You don’t get to go complain about it to anybody.”
Baumer recalls one evening, after about a year in prison, when her cellmate would not turn down the volume on her small television. On the top bunk and unable to sleep, she called to the guard who was just outside of her cell.
‘“I remember going up to [her] and saying, ‘I can’t stay in that cell. Are you guys gonna move me?’” Baumer said. She continued to tell the guard, “This lady, she really is antagonizing me and I’m not doing anything wrong.’ and I remember [the guard] saying, ‘You’ve got 15 years, go kick her a**. And I looked at her, I’m like, ‘Who do you think I am?’ [She replied,] ‘You gotta get a thicker skin if you’re gonna survive in here.’ I’m like, ‘No, because two wrongs don’t make a right.’”
Baumer believes that it was a strategy of sticking to the rules and “toughing it out” that got through her years in prison. She continued with this strategy and immediately after her conviction, began her appeals. After her first appeal was denied, Baumer sought help from the prison law library. They helped her write a brief to submit to the Michigan Supreme Court. However, her appeal was denied. By this point, Baumer didn’t have any appeals left. She continued to visit the library and this time researched lawyers and sent them a synopsis of her case. Despite her efforts to get a lawyer, she was again unsuccessful. Most lawyers had either too many cases or did not work on ones like Baumer’s.
What happened next Baumer describes as divine intervention.
Sister Lois, a nun from the Felician Sisters in Livonia, saw Baumer’s name on a prayer list and visited her in prison. Baumer shared her story with Sister Lois, who recommended she speak to Charles Lugosi, an attorney with the Ave Maria Law School.
Thankfully, Lugosi had just met David Moran, who was looking for viable cases to start a clinic, which later became the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan.
The Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan helps those who have been wrongly accused and are in jail get out and get their charges lifted. In order for an inmate to get their case reviewed again, they must be provided new evidence to prove their innocence. The clinic began when Moran found that there was a strong need for cases that do not use DNA as evidence (non-DNA cases). According to Moran, most DNA cases are rape cases, where the perpetrator most often leaves behind “biological evidence” that can later be used in court. This leaves out many other types of cases, including ones like Baumer’s.
“The vast majority of other cases—burglaries, armed robberies, arsons, thefts of all kinds—there’s no DNA to test,” Moran said. “The DNA cases are great because they really shine the light on the problems in the criminal justice system—but it’s just a very small piece of the puzzle.”
When Moran heard about Baumer’s case, he decided to take it on. He remained in contact with Lugosi, and asked Carl Marlinga to be Baumer’s lead council. Baumer went back to court in November of 2009, this time with the Innocence Clinic attorneys by her side. According to Baumer’s transcripts (published in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform) the attorneys had sent the scans to several doctors and neurosurgeons who proved that the CAT scans and MRIs were interpreted falsely. Philipp had suffered from venous sinus thrombosis.
Despite her improved defense this time in court, Baumer kept her expectations low. Underneath the suit she wore everyday to the courthouse was fear and worry. She kept on a sports bra and comfortable clothing because she knew that any minute she could be taken back into that 6-by-6 cell.
Around Thanksgiving of 2009, Baumer was told by her attorney that the judge was reviewing her case and would hopefully overturn her conviction.
Baumer’s conviction was finally overturned in November of 2009, and she was hoping to be home by Thanksgiving, but the prosecutor decided to appeal her case, and tried her again. Baumer was recharged, taken to the county jail, and had a tether placed on her. She was able to work at home while she awaited her second trial, which started in September of 2010.
At the second trial, two doctors testified against Baumer. Her lead counsel, Carl Marlinga, had transcripts of what these doctors said at the first trial, and Baumer knew they were lying.
“I don’t understand how they weren’t even charged with perjury, because they were giving different answers and everybody in the courtroom could see that they were conflicting with their own stories,” Baumer said.
When David Moran and his students confronted Dr. Ham, the neurosurgeon, with new evidence that they had received from new doctors they contacted, Baumer was surprised.
“He said very very casually, ‘You know what, I might have been wrong about that one, but if I was wrong about that one, how many other cases have I been wrong about? I’ve been in practice for 30+ years. I’ve got a reputation, I’ve got a family, I’ve got a practice. I’m not changing my story.’ That would make him un-credible, if you will,” Baumer said.
Baumer and her attorneys at the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic were able to prove, with new evidence, that Philipp had suffered a form of child stroke, called venous sinus thrombosis, and was not a victim of shaken baby syndrome. On Oct. 15, 2010, Baumer was officially exonerated and cleared of all charges. She remembers this feeling vividly.
“Oh my god finally, this nightmare’s over,” she said. “Finally, somebody’s listening.”
Life after exoneration was not easy for Baumer. She become so accustomed to the strict life at prison that her transition to normal life was difficult. One day when she was at the public library, she approached the woman working behind a desk and asked her for permission to use the restroom.
“That’s just how you’re mentally trained,” Baumer said. “You don’t do anything without permission. “It was a really really long time for me to get out of that mental [state.]”
One night that February, she woke up in the middle of the night to again remember how free she really was.
“I remember waking up, laying there, and I was like, you know what? And I actually started crying. It was like tears of joy,” Baumer said. “But I remember thinking, I can go outside and look at the moonlight, and no alarms gonna go off—no alarm from the tether. I was like, if I want to I can go—I don’t care if it’s 2:30 in the morning—I can go to Meijer if I want. I can do whatever I want. It was just having that reality of having that freedom back. It was very overpowering. I can remember I started crying but it wasn’t like I was sad, it was like this is finally over. This is really finally over.”
Baumer started to come up with a plan to get back in school and find a job again. Still in debt from matters not dealt with before her conviction, she was denied student aid. She then got a second job which helped her pay off the debt after just a few months. She worked hard and now serves as the secretary of Our Lady of Redemption Catholic Church in Warren, Mich.
Along with getting her life back together, Baumer has been advocating for legislation to compensate exonerees. According to an article published by Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act was introduced in May of 2015 by Michigan State Senator Steve Bieda. The bill stated that exonerees would receive $50,000 for every year they were incarcerated. According to Baumer, if exonerees want to be compensated, they can’t simply say they were wrongfully convicted. They must get a court date, go to court and show their innocence to a judge.
“When an individual is proven innocent, they should find a state that wants to help them, not another legal battle,” Sen. Steve Bieda said in the WMU Cooley Law School article.
Before Michigan’s passing, 31 states already compensated exonerees.
The bill passed the Michigan House of Representatives and the Senate, and according to an article published by Michigan Radio, the bill was signed by Governor Rick Snyder in late December of 2016, granting exonerees $50,000 for every year they were exonerated.
While Baumer is grateful this, she still believes that not much can make up for what she has lost. She believes that her life was given back to her as a broken jigsaw puzzle, and that she will never have a full one again.
“There’s nothing anybody can really do to compensate me,” Baumer said. “Everything that I’ve lost is priceless. You can’t put a price on my four years, you can’t put a price on Philipp, you can’t put a price on the memories of just being out—getting married, furthering myself in my career, anything. You know those were very important years.”
However, Baumer does believe that the passing of the bill could help her move forward mentally and emotionally. She would see it as an apology from the state.
“Of course I have people saying ‘I’m so sorry that’s happened to you,’” Baumer said. “But the prosecutor never apologized, the prison certainly never apologized because they mistreat people there. Nobody apologized. It would just be helpful for me to have that closure and be like yeah, somebody is finally accepting that they did wrong and they’re acknowledging it.”
Although Baumer is moving on, it is not easy. She missed out on four years of her life.
“I look at the people around me and the world is evolving,” Baumer said. “People I know are evolving, they’re getting married, they’re having children. My nephews and nieces are getting married and having children, my nephews and nieces are getting married and having children and here I’m stuck like a kid still. The world is moving and it’s like I’m not trying to be left behind.”
She will be resigning at the end of December to attend Southern New Hampshire University, an online school, to hopefully finish her degree in criminal justice that she started before taking care of Philipp. She is still in touch with her sister, who celebrated her 39th birthday in October. If the legislation passes, Baumer plans to donate a portion of the money she is compensated with to the Innocence Clinic and the lawyers there who helped her. She continues to participate in the innocence movement by speaking to University of Michigan Law School students and attending a yearly innocence conference. The conference serves as a platform for discussion around how to further educate people about wrongful convictions and the seriousness of the issue.
“It’s not a Law & Order episode. It’s real life.”