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‘Likely Innocent’: Judge Frees Woman Jailed 15 Years in Child’s Death

A Texas woman who had served 15 years in prison for the death of a young boy she was babysitting was released on bond this week after a judge found that she was “likely innocent.”

The woman, Rosa Jimenez, was convicted of murder in 2005 and sentenced to 99 years in prison for the death of Bryan Gutierrez, a 21-month-old who choked on a wad of paper towels while in her care at her home in Austin, Texas. At her trial in 2005, experts testified that an accidental death would have been impossible.

But at a hearing this week, five pediatric airway experts testified that the child’s death could have been accidental. One expert, who testified via an affidavit, reversed her testimony from the original trial, according to court records.

On Wednesday, Judge Karen Sage of Travis County concluded that the death was a “tragic accident” and ordered Ms. Jimenez to be released on bond. The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals will now decide whether to vacate the charges or recommend a retrial.

In her finding, Judge Sage wrote that the original trial included “false and misleading testimony,” was “infected with constitutional error” and that Ms. Jimenez, now 38, was “likely innocent of the crimes for which she was convicted and has been imprisoned for the past 17 years.”

The office of the Travis County district attorney, José Garza, joined Ms. Jimenez’s defense in requesting her release.

“This case is an absolute tragedy,” Mr. Garza said. “It is a tragedy for Ms. Jimenez and her entire family that they have had to suffer through this process for so long. And we cannot forget that this is also a tragedy for Ms. Gutierrez, who lost her son.”

Ms. Jimenez came to the United States from Mexico in 1999, married and had a daughter, who was a 1-year-old in 2003, her lawyer said.

Occasionally, her neighbor Victoria Gutierrez asked her to babysit her son, Bryan. In an interview with The New York Times in 2012, Ms. Jimenez said she babysat Bryan for seven months without incident. But one day in early 2003, he began to choke and turn blue.

Ms. Jimenez said she tried to put her finger down his throat to remove the obstruction, then ran with him to a neighbor’s home, where they called 911.

Emergency workers eventually removed a wad of paper towel from Bryan’s airway — five attached sheets, balled up and bloodied. By then, he had lost enough oxygen to be severely brain-damaged. He died three months later in hospice, according to court records.

At the trial, medical experts testified that a 21-month-old child could not have forced the paper towels down his own throat. Ms. Jiminez was convicted. A few months later, she gave birth to a son in custody.

Over the years, Ms. Jimenez filed numerous appeals, and several judges have said she was not given a fair trial.

During one appeal, the judge from the original trial, Jon Wisser, wrote a letter to the district attorney that said that he had “serious doubts” about the verdict and that there was “a substantial likelihood” that Ms. Jimenez was not guilty.

In 2019, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ordered her to be released or retried by Feb. 25, 2020, but Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, appealed, so she remained imprisoned.

Mr. Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The turning point for the case was a consensus statement issued in 2020 by four pediatric doctors who found that Bryan’s death was “a tragic outcome, but an outcome stemming from an accident, not a malicious act,” according to court records.

Ms. Jimenez was represented by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate prisoners it considers wrongfully convicted. The group said that, because she suffers from advanced kidney disease, she was particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, which has spread quickly through prison populations across the country.

On Wednesday, Ms. Jimenez was released into the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents because she was not in the United States legally when she was arrested.

At a news conference after her release, Ms. Jimenez said she was “overwhelmed” and that the first thing she wanted to do was go to church.

“I could not even believe it until I just walked out the door, and it was the first moment I felt it was true,” she said. She said she planned to attend the wedding of her daughter and would “try to live my life with my kids.”

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