Anatomy of Innocence explores the growing trend of wrongful convictions by featuring the true stories of exonerees told by mystery and thriller writers. This is an excerpt from chapter 10 entitled “Staying on Track: Surviving Incarceration.” This is Ohio exoneree Ginny Lefever’s story as told to Sarah Weinman.
Once incarcerated, the most difficult tasks for most exonerees—in addition to survival—are to keep hold of their intellectual and spiritual faculties and stay focused on their innocence and the possibility of exoneration. Too often, the mere fact of imprisonment is overwhelming. Most people are ill equipped to cope with the overbearing presence and sometimes sadism of the corrections officers, the mental instability of other prisoners, and the sense of isolation and despair brought on by imprisonment. The following is the story of one woman’s battle with herself.
Ginny Lefever didn’t wake up one morning and discover she had put on half a person in weight overnight.
It happened, like bankruptcy, slowly, slowly, then all at once, the realization that at 273 pounds, she’d reached her heaviest and could not afford to add pounds to her five-foot-five-inch frame.
Nor could Ginny, in the summer of 1994, afford to give in to the shadow of madness lurking about the prison at the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. Most days she could remind herself this circumscribed, ritual-bound life was real. That she was serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband, a murder she did not commit. Most days Ginny could carry on the fight, enlisting lawyers to appeal on her behalf, bucking up at every denial, every upheld judgment, every bit of bad news.
But then there were times she turned on the television and felt like the news belonged to another planet. There were more than a few moments when Ginny felt the prison walls move in tighter around her body and mind. She couldn’t see out. She couldn’t see streets or cars. She could hardly hear noise that wasn’t tied to the prison. The rational part of her knew better. But the rational part couldn’t battle that lurking shadow forever. Not unless Ginny did something about it. And if she didn’t do something now, she feared she never would. Then the shadow would win, taking what remained of her hope.
She’d spent the past four years essentially eating herself to death. She would no more. She’d spent an equal amount of time fighting big battles and losing, fighting little battles and also losing. She could not lose her sanity in the process.
At Marysville, prisoners had access to a circular track. A single lap equaled about a tenth of a mile. On sunny afternoons the track would crowd with other inmates, stupidly grateful for the chance to move around for a short while, happy to get away from regularly scheduled counts, terrible meals, and private hells of their own making.
Those other women didn’t have Ginny’s newfound purpose. She eyed the track as a means to an end. If she walked around, even for a few laps, that shadow might recede. An active body had to help bring her rational mind back to dominance.
She chose a summer day for its dusk delay, for the chance of a few extra hours. Ginny, in orange prison clothes, white off-brand sneakers, a Walkman in her hand attached to the buds in her ears, headed out for the track just after lunch. She took her mark. She got set. She began to walk in a loop.
She barely made it three full times around the track that first day.
Ginny sweated. She waddled. She grunted and groaned. Her legs felt like lead. Her feet ached like she’d walked on molten coal. She was not used to moving so much, even if it was really so little. Screw this, Ginny thought, I don’t need to come back tomorrow.
* * *
She came back the next day. She walked around the full track three times and then some. She went back the day after that. And the day after that. The loops multiplied. The mileage piled up. And so did her resolve: She had to lose the weight, heal her mind, and prove, some way, somehow, she did not kill her husband.
As Ginny circled the track, that first time and all those later times, she tried not to dwell on her predicament. But a predicament like hers was hard to ignore. Especially when the fight to save your sense of self was such a lonely fight.
Ginny’s sense of self was, before prison, very developed. It had to be. She endured her fair share of strife— hardscrabble origins in rural Ohio. Acting as the mother figure for her younger siblings because her own mother and father had all but checked out of the parenting thing. Getting pregnant at the tail end of high school, marrying the child’s father, realizing, as so many in her situation did, that such a marriage was a bad idea. Divorce, then meeting someone new, someone who seemed kind. Someone who listened. Someone who cared. Someone who respected Ginny so she, in turn, could respect herself more.
They married, Ginny and William Lefever, blending their families together, and for a while things were good. Ginny went to nursing school and came close to finishing her bachelor’s degree. She worked and looked after the kids, hers and his. And then, gradually at first and suddenly not long after, things went very bad. The birth of a child with severe defects, and his death at the age of nine. Miscarriages. Physical and psychological abuse. Another child’s premature passing. And her husband’s descent into hard drinking and harder drugs.
By 1988, Ginny’s husband was chronically unemployed and chronically addicted. Ginny, thirty-seven at the time, wanted out and prepared to divorce. In August of that year, she received full custody of her children and filed a restraining order against her soon-to-be ex-husband. The Ohio domestic court scheduled a final hearing to grant Ginny her divorce on September 27, 1988.
She never got that hearing.
A week before, on the night of September 20, 1988, William Lefever came back to the house he had once shared with Ginny, to have dinner with the children, per the custody agreement. During the evening Ginny thought William was acting oddly. Her heart sank because that oddness was familiar, so much like the way he behaved while he was on drugs. He wouldn’t leave the house after dinner, despite Ginny’s insistence that he do so, that the court had ordered him to do so. Instead, William passed out on the couch in the main room.
The next morning William awoke and became belligerent, even combative. Paramedics were called to the house, and they took him to the hospital, where he admitted to taking a bunch of Ginny’s antidepressants.
His behavior worsened. His heart gave out. William Lefever, forty-one, died in the hospital.
Despite his words to the doctors, despite Ginny’s firm belief her husband was capable of suicide, law enforcement focused on a glaringly obvious needle prick on William’s butt. He’d received a deliberate drug overdose, one that did not look self-administered. The cops believed that Ginny did it. The experts—one man in particular— swore Ginny did it with poison. A jury convicted her in February 1990 and sentenced Ginny to life in prison.
And now here she was, hobbling around the track because her life depended on it.
* * *
Through sweat and tears and grit, Ginny Lefever made it a full mile around the Marysville track. As summer waned and winter dawned, she upped her mileage, day by day, songs like Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You” the soundtrack to her daily regimen.
The weight dropped off, to the 200 pounds she weighed at trial, to the 170 when she got arrested, and lower and lower. She wasn’t anywhere near her high school trim size and maybe never would be. What mattered more was that Ginny kept moving. Pretty soon she got other people’s attention. Other women asked to walk with her. “I never intended for that to be a thing,” Ginny said, “but it got to be a thing on a small scale.”
The other women in prison with her, those who walked with her and even those who did not, thought Ginny had it good in Marysville. She taught a class or two, an hour a week on life and coping strategies. She had her own room when many did not.
She had access to a decent library and read everything she could get her hands on, especially mystery novels by the likes of Grisham, Evanovich, and Patterson. It might have been nice to read more women authors. Not romance novels, though. Those would never touch Ginny’s hands.
Ginny knew different from what the other prisoners thought about her: She might have looked like she had it good all right, but inside was another matter. Inside her mind, the doubts had room to play. So did the questions about what was real and what was not. The cold spot of anger over her absurd situation. The corrosive belief that hope was a mirage.
The more Ginny walked, the more determined she was to leave Marysville.
That year she walked to save her life, she read through the Bible from start to finish. There was a verse from Deuteronomy that Ginny made her own and kept repeating to herself: “I gotta get off the mountain.”
Ginny pleaded her case for a transfer to the warden at the beginning of 2001. It was unusual for a lifer to get approved to be moved to a lower-security prison in Ohio.
But the warden was sympathetic to Ginny and admired her resolve.
“You’re crazy,” was the general refrain from her fellow inmates. Why would Ginny leave a place where she could be left alone? Where lifers had, however tiny, some measure of personal space, not crowded in like cattle? Going from having your own room to double-bunking with who-knows-what?
But the feeling was that the television channel’s broadcast from another galaxy wouldn’t leave Ginny be. There was so much she could not control: How the Ohio courts might rule on her latest habeas corpus appeal. Whether someone, anyone, other than the lawyers she paid, would take her insistence of innocence seriously. After each court loss Ginny’s determination and desperation increased in tandem.
“My fear was not about whether I would ever get out, but that when I did, there wouldn’t be enough left of me to put the pieces back together again,” she said. “I knew intellectually and cognitively that I was stuck in some remote hole in central Ohio and that the world outside existed. But my brain would go, ‘What if it’s something else?’ ”
It took a few months to process the paperwork for the transfer. Ohio prison bureaucracy does not move quickly. But in July of that year, Ginny got her wish.
Good-bye, Marysville. Hello, Franklin.
* * *
What hurt Ginny the most was what had happened with her family.
There were four children, theirs and hers, when Ginny was arrested. Her youngest, Alex, was just four years old. Alex went into foster care. Then his foster parents got divorced. Ginny learned that by letter, when it looked like Alex would get sent back into the system.
Ginny and Alex began a phone relationship, which turned into occasional visits when he got older. By then, Alex was almost an adult. He’d been told his mother was an evil monster who murdered his father. The woman sitting across from him did not seem that way at all. She was blunt, yes. Had little patience or soft manner. Prison did that to a woman, sharpened her already serrated edges to Ginsu territory. But slowly Alex began to doubt that she was the cold-hearted killer he’d been led to expect. Later, he would have troubles of his own, overcome them and raise a family—Ginny’s grandchildren. But for now, though it wasn’t much, she was his mother.
Ginny’s oldest daughter, Heather, stood by her for her entire prison sentence. Heather wanted to take in the younger kids when Ginny started her sentence. Ginny said no. “You have to live your life,” she told Heather, and it was good advice at the time, even though later the distance between them made Ginny sad. Heather, she said, became a different person. It happens. She lived her life, and it took her in a different direction from what Ginny hoped.
The other children said Ginny was guilty from the first and never wavered. Sometimes they said so to the media. Ginny saw the sins of the past repeat again and again. Drinking. Drugs. Custody losses. Peripatetic lives. Ginny blamed it on trauma, unrecognized and untreated.
* * *
Ginny transferred from Marysville to the Franklin County Corrections Center the week after 9/11. She spent the first week in what’s called prerelease, designed to ease the transition from one facility to another. Ginny noticed right away that the place “had a really nice track with a nice view of the highway. I sat on the top bleachers and watched the traffic go by, endlessly. Anytime I didn’t have to be somewhere else, I sat and watched the cars go by.”
She didn’t count them. She didn’t do anything more than sit and watch, smell the crisp fall air, hear the engines roar one by one as they whizzed by her down below. But the relief was palpable. Ginny’s grip on sanity would stay put. No longer would she feel, as she had in Marysville, that she was stuck in an alternate universe. She could be present. She could find more energy to fight for her release from prison. And she could keep going around the track.
Ginny didn’t just walk around the Franklin track. She ran, like someone was chasing her. Most of the time she kept to four or five miles, but every so often she’d double that, while listening to Green Day’s “21 Guns” or “American Idiot.”
Years passed, and Ginny grew accustomed to prison life at Franklin. She took college-level courses. She filed some legal briefs herself when she couldn’t afford to pay her lawyers. And while she was devastated when the parole board denied her application, saying they didn’t want her to come back for another ten years, Ginny took the news in stride. So many lifers in Ohio got shut down for fifteen, twenty years, sometimes more.
If she could just be patient. If she could apply the same diligence to her life that she did to her exercise regimen, maybe, just maybe, there would be a chance.
It took asking the right person the right question. But when Ginny asked it, boy, did it ever pay off.
* * *
Throughout the whole process of her trial and appeals, one man’s testimony bothered Ginny the most. James Ferguson was the top toxicologist for all of Franklin County, working out of the County Coroner’s Office, and he had been testifying as an expert at trials for what seemed like time immemorial. He seemed to have taken the witness stand as soon as he had graduated from The Ohio State University, which he said was in the early 1970s, maybe even before then.
That was the thing. The date of his graduation kept changing, depending on when Ferguson testified and what case it was. Of course Ginny didn’t like what Ferguson said about her at trial. His testimony that the drugs in William’s system increased while he was in the hospital, and that the increase was her direct fault, was devastating. In short, he testified that Ginny was not only responsible for her husband’s death but that she had set out to kill him.
Over her time in prison Ginny learned that the facts that Ferguson recounted at her trial were flat-out wrong. She’d done her homework, consulting the Ohio legal code and finding a statute that a court could direct the coroner to change his decision about the cause, manner or mode of death already stated on a death certificate. A researcher working on behalf of her lawyer found William’s hospital records. The antidepressants in William’s system decreased while he was in the hospital, as was to be expected. The records also reported William was awake when admitted for the overdose. Ferguson had testified to William being in a coma. The more Ginny compared records with Ferguson’s testimony at her trial, the more lies she uncovered.
What she didn’t have was proof enough for the courts. Proof enough that would get them to listen. Ferguson was a seemingly unimpeachable witness, never wrong. How could she dent his armor?
Then, through a friend who had been through the system and was out on parole, Ginny found her way to The Ohio State University alumni association’s website. She found an e-mail address. She asked her friend to send them a message: Did James Ferguson attend the institution, as he had attested hundreds of times over decades of Franklin County criminal trials, and if so, when did he graduate?
Time passed, and Ginny finally got her answer from the university: Ferguson graduated from OSU in 1987. Just a year before William Lefever died. Just a year before Ginny’s life turned into a Kafka tale. And at least fifteen years later than Ferguson claimed, over and over again, under oath.
Ginny pumped her fist in the air when she learned the news. The next time her feet pounded the ground as she circled the track at Franklin County Correctional, she knew she was running toward freedom.
Ginny Lefever’s petition for habeas corpus, based on the discrediting of the testimony of James Ferguson, was granted in 2010. With no other convincing evidence, the court ordered that she be released from prison, more than twenty years after her original trial. Ginny sued the state of Ohio for compensation but has yet to receive any money. After a four-year battle to reclaim her nursing license, Ginny Lefever now works full time in the field near her home in Dublin, Ohio. She has a loving relationship with her son Alex and his family. As to the other children, she thinks, maybe someday, they won’t be lost to her. She can wait as long as necessary. She’s good at waiting.
* * *
Sarah Weinman is the editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s and 50s (Library of America) and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense (Penguin). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, among other outlets. She lives in Brooklyn.
Anatomy of Innocence Editors’ Note
According to a September 2014 study by the International Centre for Prison Studies, nearly a third of all female prisoners worldwide are incarcerated in the United States. The total population of females incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails in 2013 was 213,700. Another study, by the Sentencing Project in 2007, points out that the number of women in prison increased between 1985 and 2007 at nearly double the rate of men, 404 percent versus 209 percent.
Women in prison have problems different from men. Bureau of Justice statistics show that incarcerated women experience sexual victimization by other inmates at a rate more than two-and-a-half times greater than men. Nearly three-quarters (73.1 percent) of women in state prisons in 2005 had a mental health problem, compared with 55 percent of men in prisons. Some of these issues are highlighted in the popular web TV series Orange is the New Black.
Excerpted from Anatomy of Innocence: Testimonies of the Wrongfully Convicted edited by Laura Caldwell and Leslie S. Klinger. “Staying On Track” copyright © 2017 by Sarah Weinman. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.