After 20 Years, Rosa Jimenez Is Exonerated for a Murder That Didn’t Happen

Rosa Jimenez in 2011 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Rosa Jimenez was texting with her daughter, who was in labor, as Judge Karen Sage heard arguments on Monday that she be exonerated for the murder of 21-month-old Bryan Gutierrez in 2003.

With the exoneration granted, Jimenez was asked at a press conference minutes later how she felt.

“I feel grateful,” Jimenez said. “Grateful for everybody that supported me, everybody that believed in me. It’s a new life. My grandbady just arrived five minutes ago. A new grandbaby, a new life.”

Jimenez’s longtime supporters – Barry Scheck and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project – gasped at the news and embraced her. And the press conference came to an abrupt halt.

Monday’s exoneration marked the end of a 20-year odyssey for Jimenez, who was an undocumented immigrant, seven months pregnant and mom to a one-year-old baby, when she was accused of killing Gutierrez, who she was babysitting, by shoving a wad of paper towels down his throat. There were no witnesses to the death but Travis County attorneys presented three medical experts at Jimenez’s trial who swore the toddler could not have swallowed the paper towels on his own. She was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

There were widespread doubts, even then, about Jimenez’s guilt. The Innocence Project took the case in 2009, finding experts who testified that young children do swallow large objects and that there was no sign of the struggle that would have been necessary for Jimenez to suffocate Gutierrez. In 2010, Judge Charlie Baird threw out the conviction and ordered a new trial. In 2019, Judge Lee Yeakel did the same. Each time, the judges were overruled by higher courts. In 2021, Judge Karen Sage again ordered Jimenez released pending a new trial. Travis County District Attorney José Garza announced that his office would not seek one. She was finally released.

“I offer my apologies for the grievous injury that has been done to you in the name of justice,” Judge Sage said at the hearing, addressing Jimenez. “I also want to point out that when we fail to see that justice is done, it’s not just the accused that suffers, it’s our whole system, including the victims of tragedies and criminal acts. In this case, the family of a child who died very tragically has been told for almost two decades that he passed away in a way that we now know is physically impossible, given the science.” Sage also thanked the Travis County DA’s conviction integrity unit for advocating for Jimenez’s release.

In the press conference, Potkin and Scheck revealed that Jimenez has end-stage kidney disease and is living in New York City, looking for a donor so she can get a transplant. Scheck said that a former exoneree, Felipe Rodriguez, has provided Jimenez a place to live and that San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich (the NBA’s winningest coach of all time) had privately offered to pay for Jimenez’s transplant. With insurance covering it, he’s now helping her search for a donor.

Potkin, who has worked in the trenches for the Innocence Project for 20 years, said she has seen cases like Jimenez’s before. “Rosa’s situation is not uncommon, particularly among women who are wrongfully convicted,” Potkin said. “According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 40% of female exonerees were wrongfully convicted of harming children, or other loved ones, who were in their care. And like Rosa, nearly three-fourths of women who were exonerated were convicted of crimes that never even happened, oftentimes involving children.”

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