The wrongful conviction of Kirstin Blaise Lobato
September 1, 2012 1 Comment
In the 1990s, wrongful convictions seemed a rarity. They were deemed by many as an aberration, resulting from corruption or extreme ineptitude on the part of police and prosecutors. In 1988, the documentary The Thin Blue Line detailed the story of Randall Dale Adams who was charged and convicted of murdering a police officer in Dallas, Texas. Adams was on death row for 12 years before his sentence was reduced. He remained in prison for another 8 years before he was finally released.
Ironically, the man who prosecuted Adams is the same person who defended Darlie Lynn Routier in 1997 – the Texas mother accused of murdering her two children and perpetuating an attack on herself to mislead investigators. Evidence in the Routier case points to a rush to judgment as well.
Wrongful convictions pose many problems. First, when the wrong person is accused and convicted of a crime it means the person or people who committed the crime go free. Second, wrongful convictions rob people of their lives and deprive their families and friends of opportunities to share meaningful experiences outside of the prison setting. Third, every wrongful conviction further erodes the American justice system – stripping it of its integrity and fundamental purpose.
Kirstin Blaise Lobato’s case is a salient example of a wrongful conviction. Kirstin goes by her middle name, Blaise. She has been incarcerated for 11 years for a crime she did not commit. While you have probably read those exact words many times, let me assure you there is no other case quite like Blaise’s.
I will begin telling Blaise’s story by detailing events that took place in the summer of 2001. Blaise graduated from high school in the spring of 2000. By the summer of 2001, she had fallen in with a somewhat rough crowd and was using drugs. An incident in late May of 2001 marked the beginning of a dramatic change in Blaise’s life, however.
By late May, Blaise was staying in Las Vegas with one of her friends. She was getting out of her car in the parking lot of the Budget Suites Hotel on the eastern side of the city when a large man suddenly attacked her from behind. Blaise was thrown to the ground and as the man knelt down, preparing to sexually assault her, she pulled out a butterfly knife she carried for protection. She attempted to stab the man in the general area of his groin, which provided her with an opportunity to escape her assailant.
Many people who have experienced any type of sexual assault refrain from reporting the incident to police. Sometimes the person confides in friends or family members about the experience. Blaise shared the details of the attempted assault with at least five people, including her father. She described her assailant as “really big” – approximately 200 lbs and over 6″ tall.
By the beginning of July, Blaise was determined to make positive changes in her life. She made the decision to leave behind the lifestyle she had adopted in Las Vegas and move to Panaca to stay with her father, stepmother, and sister – 170 miles away.
On July 5th, Blaise’s stepmother accompanied her to the doctor. Blaise had not been feeling well. The clinic drew her blood and asked her to provide urine for a 24-hour urine test. The blood and urine tests showed that she had used cannabis, but there was no indication she was using meth. This would later become an important detail.
For Blaise, July 8th was a relatively uneventful day. As many as thirteen friends and family members saw and spoke to her throughout the day and well into the evening. Her car remained parked in front of the her family’s home.
However, 170 miles away in Las Vegas, 44 year old Duran Bailey had a markedly different kind of day. By around 10 p.m., a man who was dumpster diving contacted police to inform them he discovered a body. The person discovered was Bailey and he had been beaten and stabbed to death.
Bailey’s murder was especially brutal. Bloody foot prints were found on his torso and leading away from his body. In addition to sustaining what was later described as “blunt head trauma”, Bailey’s penis had been amputated. Semen was found in the man’s rectum, but did not contain sperm and so it could not be tested for DNA at the time. Fresh looking tire tracks were observed in the immediate area as well. Police collected chewing gum that was on the cardboard box used to conceal Bailey’s body, along with cigarettes and other items in the area.
An early lead examined informally by detectives pertained to a woman named Diann Parker and a man named Steven King. Parker had previously reported having been beaten and raped on July 5th by a man she later identified as Duran Bailey. In Parker’s original report she gave the names of a number of Mexican males who warned Bailey to stay away from her before he raped her. The detectives conducted a criminal background search on the men and turned up nothing. Astonishingly, they did not pursue the lead any further.
Instead, police decided to zero in on a far less likely and improbable scenario. It began with a conversation between Dixie Tienken and juvenile probation officer Laura Johnson. Tienken allegedly told Johnson that one of her former students told her she cut off the penis of a man who attacked her. Johnson then relayed this information to one of the officer’s investigating Bailey’s death on July 20th. She identified the woman in question as 18 year old Kirstin Blaise Lobato and she gave the officer information about where Blaise was living.
A preliminary background check on Blaise revealed that when the teenager was 6 years old she had been sexually assaulted for nine months by her mother’s boyfriend. This was information the police discussed with Blaise when they later questioned her.
The police felt they had solved the mystery behind Bailey’s brutal homicide. Blaise did not confess to the murder, but did describe the attack that took place in late May. It did not concern them that Blaise was only 100 lbs, or that a significant number of people could confirm she was in Panaca during the time in question. They also were not fazed by the fact that the attack she described to them during questioning occurred a month before Bailey’s murder, and involved the description of a man who was much larger and taller than Bailey. Moreover, the attack on Kirstin happened in a completely different part of Las Vegas.
Another problem was the claim that the two events were the same. The time difference between the events of one month was not the only distinguishing factor. The outcome of the first consisted of both people leaving the situation very much alive. The second resulted in a murder. The police felt these two incidents were the same and that instead of fleeing the scene leaving a man alive, Blaise had viciously murdered the man without leaving any shred of evidence linking her to Bailey or the scene. But the theory simply did not fit the evidence, nor did it make any sense.
Police seized her vehicle and searched for blood. A preliminary analysis of the car revealed that there were spots that could potentially be blood; however, further analysis determined they were not as a number of substances will test positive in preliminary tests but turn out to be something else entirely. None of the DNA collected at the crime scene matched Kirstin. The police did not find any physical evidence linking her to the crime or to the Las Vegas area when the murder occurred.
The only thing the police had was a girl who reported fending off a would-be rapist with a knife about one month before Bailey’s murder. Later it would be speculated that Blaise went to Las Vegas to obtain methamphetamines and was on some kind of meth-induced binge when she murdered Bailey. The problem is that blood and urine tests conducted in the days prior to the murder refute this contention. Alibi witnesses stating Blaise was in Panaca also shed considerable doubt on the prosecution’s case. Many of these witnesses were not allowed to testify at Blaise’s trial.
The presumption of innocence is a basic rule applied to criminal procedures in the United States. In the state of Nevada, “every person charged with the commission of a crime shall be presumed innocent until the contrary is proved by competent evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.” When it comes to jury instruction in a criminal case, Nevada statutes require juries to receive a specific description of reasonable doubt. No other substitute is allowable by law. According to NRS 175.211, the description reads as follows:
1. A reasonable doubt is one based on reason. It is not mere possible doubt, but is such a doubt as would govern or control a person in the more weighty affairs of life. If the minds of the jurors, after the entire comparison and consideration of all the evidence, are in such a condition that they can say they feel an abiding conviction of the truth of the charge, there is not a reasonable doubt. Doubt to be reasonable must be actual, not mere possibility or speculation.
The prosecution did not present an argument to the jury that erased reasonable doubt. In fact, their entire case was built on speculation, hearsay, and possibility. The prosecution told the jury the attack on Blaise in May was really the same incident in which Bailey was murdered. This was despite the fact that many people corroborated Blaise’s claim she was in Panaca in the time period surrounding the murder. Nevermind that the shoe or boot prints found on the body and leading away from the scene were much too large to belong to Blaise, or that there was no physical evidence linking the young woman to the murder even though a plethora of evidence had been collected. The tire tracks found at the scene did not match Blaise’s car either.
There are many more details about this case and all of them further point to Blaise’s innocence. In fact, Hans Sherrer from a site known as Justice Denied took the time to detail this troubling case in a book that is available online. For those who are interested in learning more about this case I highly recommend reading his account (click here to download).
Blaise was eventually given a retrial. She was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter using a deadly weapon, along with sexual penetration of a deceased person. She received a 13 year minimum sentence, with a maximum of 35 years. Though she will be eligible for parole at the 13 year mark, the system has failed Blaise many times before. The system has failed others in the past and will continue to fail people until wrongful convictions are openly acknowledged and much is done to correct the problem.
Efforts on behalf of a group of Blaise’s supporters have helped to bring this case to the attention of many. A petition was launched by Michelle Ravell, asking the current Clark County District Attorney, Steven B. Wolfson, to allow DNA testing in Blaise’s case. The Innocence Project has even agreed to pay for the testing if DA Wolfson allows it. Over 143,000 people have signed this petition, but Wolfson has thus far refused to allow testing.
Michelle became involved with this case because her son had met Blaise the weekend before she was arrested. She remembers what transpired following her son meeting the young woman well. “When he came home he said to me, ‘Mom, I just met the woman I want to marry.’ This was a real shock to me because he had never said those words about any woman before,” Michelle explained.
Michelle had no experience when it came to dealing with the justice system, but upon Blaise’s arrest and subsequent conviction, she felt compelled to do whatever she could to help the young woman. She sat through the first trial and felt strongly that Blaise had been wrongfully convicted. “I couldn’t let it go,” she said. “I believe that the universe gives you what you are meant to have, and it is your job to accept it with joy and grace. I knew that I had to do something to right the wrong. I did research on the internet for hours on wrongful convictions. I wrote others. I wrote Innocence Projects…I wrote Justice Denied. A friend of mine helped me put up the first website.”
Michelle then came in contact with Helen Caddes who offered to provide her skills and expertise in relation to putting up a really good website, containing detailed information about Blaise’s case.
Helen first learned about Blaise’s case when she discovered Michelle’s first website. Helen described the relationship, stating, “Michelle and I have worked as a team to raise awareness about Kirstin’s case for almost 10 years now. We have been guests on radio shows to discuss the case, Michelle has been interviewed by local news media, I gave a speech at a juvenile justice conference in Las Vegas in 2003 and we are both active participants in wrongful conviction communities online. I gave a presentation about Kirstin’s case in a roundtable event at my college a number of years ago and did pamphleting on campus (Middle Tennessee State University). We’ve made stickers, t-shirts, business cards and bumper stickers to help raise awareness. Most recently, we delivered the petition to District Attorney Steve Wolfson with a number of supporters, friends, and family members present.”
Helen corresponds with Blaise and describes her as “one of the most caring, intelligent and wonderful people” she has ever met. Helen has connected with Blaise and her story for her own personal reasons as well. “As a survivor of sexual assault at the age of 16, Kirstin’s story touched me deeply – it could have been me, as far as I was concerned, had I been able to defend myself when I was attacked just as she was.” She added, “If I had defended myself, I too could have been framed and convicted of an unrelated murder – as strange as it sounds, that’s what happened to her. That’s one reason I’m so dedicated to pursuing her freedom.”
Having gone through the experience of petitioning a prosecutor myself in the past, I was curious as to whether Michelle’s petition effort was at all successful in motivating the DA to test the DNA. Michelle responded: “The only effect that it has had on the DAs is that they have become even more negative. It disgusts me that these people whose job it is to see that justice is done, are not willing to do that. The DA that has signed the legal briefs in Kirstin’s case has lied so many times to the press, saying that she ‘confessed’, which is not true at all, and they are even lying to the Nevada Supreme Court in their briefs. They say that the DNA is from a trash enclosure and won’t produce anything because anyone’s DNA could be there,” she said. “The DNA that we have requested to be tested isn’t just garbage that was laying around in a trash enclosure. All the items would have been touched by the person who committed the crime.”
Michelle sees no logical reason for the district attorneys to continue to fight the testing. It would be at the expense of the Innocence Project and it would provide answers in a murder that has claimed more victims, through the misuse of the legal system, than just Bailey.
Michelle spends up to three hours a day on Blaise’s case. She helps to raise awareness, answers questions, and works with others like Helen Caddes to find new ways to keep the public informed about what has happened to Blaise. She has become convinced that Blaise is merely one of many people wrongfully convicted in America’s criminal justice system. She is committed to finding the time, in between other life and family obligations, to work toward correcting serious problems in the legal system.
I asked Michelle what people can do to help her in this quest for justice. She asks that people sign the petition asking the DA to allow testing. She would also like for people to reach out to Blaise and tell her she has support. People may also help to fund her commissary account as it helps her pay for basic items. It also helps to keep her spirits up. Other ways that people can help include assisting Michelle and others in financing a billboard or two, printing t-shirts, yard signs, and other promotional materials.
People may even help by sharing articles, the petition, and promotional items regarding to case on Facebook and other social media sites. Contacting local and national news media is yet another great way to get the word out about Blaise’s case and to help educate the public on wrongful convictions in general.
“Contact public figures,” Michelle added. “And ask them to get involved in her case, either by speaking out about it, recording a song about her case, etc. Contact investigative journalists (the few that still exist that actually research and tell the truth) and ask them to write a story about her case. Talk to everyone you know and forward her website, Facebook page, and information to them to raise awareness.”
Blaise’s case is particularly disturbing because a woman who fended off an attempted rape was later victimized by the same system that is supposed to protect victims of violence. When she was arrested for Bailey’s murder, she was working on turning her life around. She was surrounded by people who loved her and cared about her well-being. Those people have also suffered as a result of Blaise’s conviction.
All the people who love and support Blaise just want her to return home. Helen described her future hopes to me, stating, “My dream for Blaise is for her to be free, to have her dreams come true and for her to be truly happy one day, despite all she has been through.”
Anyone reading this has the power to help make that a reality.
Please help Blaise achieve the freedom she deserves!
Blaise’s website is here:http://www.justice4kirstin.com/
Sign and share her petition here:
Join the Facebook group geared toward advocacy for Blaise:
Read the book (very detailed, with timelines, pictures, and other information):