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Wrongly Convicted
'They robbed my kids of their childhood,' says East Valley woman imprisoned for a crime she didn't commit
February 12, 2008


The deal that attorney Alan Simpson brought to his client in December was a good one.

Plead guilty to robbing a bank in Gilbert, and you will probably be out of prison in a matter of months, free to return to your former life and your family.

Publication info
This story originally ran Feb. 12, 2008 in the East Valley Tribune in Arizona.

But for Rachel Jernigan, a mother of four who had already served seven years for the robbery and was slated for seven more, it wasn't an option. She wouldn't say she was guilty because she insisted she was not.

"She could have accepted that plea offer and been virtually done with her sentence," Simpson said in a recent interview. "And she said no."

It was the moment when Simpson, who had only been on the case a couple of months, knew he was dealing with a wrongly convicted woman, he said.

Jernigan was freed from federal prison last week after another woman, already serving time for a different bank robbery, confessed to the crime.

The confession forced the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix to drop its case against the 38-year-old Jernigan, who was awaiting a new trial after a panel of federal judges overturned her first conviction last year.

Jernigan's case shows the effect the entire process can have on the accused and their families.

"Those are seven years that they can never give me back," Jernigan said in a recent interview at Simpson's Carefree office. "They robbed my kids of their childhood."

The U.S. Attorney's Office refused to allow its prosecutor in the case, Michael Morrissey, to be interviewed for this story, and a spokeswoman for the office declined to comment. An FBI Phoenix Division spokesman also declined to comment on the case.

The history of Jernigan's arrest, conviction and appeal for a new trial is laid out in hundreds of pages of records from police, the FBI and federal courts. Most of the records were provided to the Tribune by Jernigan's attorney, and some would not otherwise be publicly available.

Jernigan first came to the attention of the FBI in late 2000 when Special Agent Kyle Richard was investigating the Sept. 20 robbery of a Bank of America branch at Guadalupe and Gilbert roads. A woman in a ball cap and denim jacket had walked into the bank that morning with a gun and a sloppily-written note demanding money. She got away with more than $5,000.

Shortly after the robbery, Richard spoke to another federal agent who was looking into the theft of stamps from a post office in Gilbert. The suspect in the theft was Jernigan, and the investigator told Richard she matched the description of the bank robber.

Jernigan, who was 31 at the time, had a lengthy arrest record, beginning when she was 11 years old. The offenses were mostly minor - stealing groceries or shoes from stores - but she was also convicted twice in her 20s of trying to sell $20 worth of cocaine to undercover officers.

When Richard saw an old booking photo of Jernigan, he saw his suspect.

Both the robber and Jernigan were about 5 feet tall, Hispanic, in their 30s with pock-marked faces. Pictures of Jernigan "closely matched" the bank robber, Richard wrote in a report.

With the help of the Gilbert Police Department and a collection of old police photos, Richard created a lineup to show to witnesses by placing the mug shots of five other women next to one of Jernigan.

That's where the misidentifications started, said Simpson, who took over Jernigan's retrial case in October of last year.

"I had the same immediate reaction" as the lawyer who first defended Jernigan, he said. "That's a bad lineup and I can attack that."

According to a police document Simpson planned to use in court, investigators are supposed to show "similar looking suspects" in terms of size, race, age, hair and other characteristics. But the lineup with Jernigan placed her next to women who were older, larger, had longer hair or did not look Hispanic.

It made it too easy for witnesses to point to Jernigan because she was the only person who resembled the robber, Simpson said.

Still, in 2000, this lineup was shown to witnesses anyway. A teller "immediately" pointed to Jernigan as the suspect, Richard wrote in a report.

An arrest warrant was issued for her, but before police could find her, the same robber struck two more East Valley banks. By the time Jernigan was arrested in November of 2000, she was a suspect in three heists.

The following year, the government decided to only try her for the first robbery, believing a conviction in that case would lead to enough prison time, Simpson said.

Jernigan said the experience shook her. She insisted she was asleep at her Mesa apartment during the robbery and was too afraid of guns to use one. But five witnesses from the bank singled her out at trial. Their testimony was compelling, and Jernigan was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

"I knew I was going to walk away from that court, because I knew I did not commit that crime," Jernigan said last week. "When I got slapped with 14 years, I was shocked."

The sentence sent her to federal prison in California, where she was allowed just five hours of phone calls to her family and children a month.

Her four children, who were ages 5 through 11 when she was sentenced, were split up between relatives. Jernigan said she used most of her phone calls to reassure to them it was all a mistake. She would be home soon.

She remembers one call in particular with her oldest, Mark, who is now 18, in which he pressed her for an exact date when she would be freed.

"And I'm like, 'I don't know. I don't know, but I know I'm coming home.'" she told him. "It's a process ... I got attorneys that are fighting for me."

Jernigan now admits to stealing the postage stamps in 2000, but says the time she served in prison far outweighs any punishment for simple shoplifting. "It's sad that I had to endure for another crime that I didn't commit for an error that I made," she said. "But that just goes to show me, don't take anything that don't belong to you, because anything is liable to happen."

During her time in prison, Jernigan and the public defender representing her learned another woman had been arrested on suspicion of robbing banks in the East Valley. Those robberies took place about the same time as the others, and one was at the same Bank of America branch Jernigan had been convicted of robbing months earlier.

Best of all for Jernigan, the woman looked like her.

Juanita Gallegos was that woman, and she was eventually convicted of robbing the same Bank of America branch in a December 2001 heist. The information about Gallegos had not been given to the Jernigan's defense team, or even to prosecutors, even though Simpson says investigators knew of another woman.

An attorney for Gallegos could not be reached for comment.

In July 2007, the information was enough for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn Jernigan's conviction and grant her a new trial. Simpson was put on the case a few months later when Jernigan's former defense team was no longer available.

Simpson had experience with wrongful convictions. His work freed Ray Krone from Arizona's death row in 2002. Krone spent more than 10 years in prison for murder, but was exonerated when DNA evidence proved he didn't do it.

Simpson and the federal government were gearing up to go to trial all over again in Jernigan's case when, earlier this month, the other woman, Gallegos, confessed to the robbery from prison.

Court documents show she confessed only after federal prosecutors told her the crime was too old for them to go after.

Though the confession was enough to drop the case against Jernigan, the government said in court documents that Gallegos' story didn't match the facts of the case. For one, she said she didn't use a gun.

"A jury would likely be confused by the fact of her conflicting statements," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Morrissey wrote in his motion to dismiss the case. "Regardless of the weight of the evidence in this matter, the government is mindful of its obligation to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt."

The language incensed Simpson. "It should have been a freaking apology," he said. But no apology seems likely.

Spokeswoman Sandy Raynor with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Phoenix said the office plans to only speak about this case through court records. The motion to dismiss speaks for itself, she said. For Jernigan, though, that may not be enough. She said she and Simpson are discussing their next legal steps.

In the meantime, she said she will try to figure out how to readjust to society and bring her family back together.

"What matters is what I do from this point on to get me a job, to do right, to restore my motherhood," she said. "That's all that matters."

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