‘Finally’: Lawrence woman accused in day care death added to National Registry of Exonerations
photo by: Contributed
The name of a Lawrence woman who was accused of killing a baby at a Eudora day care and who underwent a yearslong ordeal maintaining her innocence has been added to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Carrody Buchhorn, whose long-running murder case was recently dropped by the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office for lack of evidence, told the Journal-World Wednesday evening that she was “so happy” to see her case listed on the prestigious registry, which is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law.
“Finally,” she said, “in writing. I am very relieved and thankful.”
Buchhorn had spent about five years in prison, jail or under house arrest as she fought allegations that she was responsible for the death of 9-month-old Oliver Ortiz at the day care where she worked.
The Registry describes itself as providing “detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989.” A long entry on the website details Buchhorn’s ordeal from 2016, when Oliver was found unresponsive at the day care, through earlier this month, when Douglas County DA Suzanne Valdez ceased prosecution, acknowledging that an expert had concluded that Oliver did not die from abuse but from preexisting health conditions.
Valdez’s office had stood by its prosecution of Buchhorn for two years, including an appeal to the Kansas Supreme Court, from the beginning of Valdez’s term in January 2021 to January of this year. The case originated in the office of the previous DA, Charles Branson.
During her campaign for office, Valdez expressed support for a conviction integrity unit in the DA’s office — to review the fairness of convictions — and said she thought that it was especially important for Douglas County since one DA, Branson, had been in place with no challengers for nearly 16 years.
Buchhorn’s attorney, William Skepnek, who successfully argued her appeal and doggedly attacked for years the coroner’s conclusion as to the cause of Oliver’s death as “junk science,” said Thursday that the addition of Buchhorn’s case to the National Registry of Exonerations was “very cool” and “really important to her.”
He said Buchhorn had been struggling with the aftermath of her ordeal and the daunting task of reentering society.
“Public vindication within the community is important,” he said, “to have this out there and publicly acknowledged.”
But he said “exoneration is just the beginning” for Buchhorn, who has a long road of recovering from being labeled a “baby killer.”
“What can she do now?” Skepnek said, indicating that Buchhorn has been psychologically traumatized by the ordeal of being accused of a heinous crime and being incarcerated for years. “She is confronted with a world that she has been so violently separated from — and now she gets put back into it, and how does she deal with this? How will she get a job? … and the psychological counseling that she needs?”
Buchhorn told the Journal-World in December that, in addition to the agony of being accused, the cost of her defense was hovering around half a million dollars, including the loss of her family’s Eudora home and other family property.
She also faced the pain of being separated from her husband and two sons and being unable for years to talk to her best friend, who was on a witness list in the case although she was never called to testify.
Being in the local jail, Buchhorn said, was a horror all its own — “much worse than prison,” she said. While there, she was forced to share a cell for months with a severely mentally ill Missouri woman who was accused (and ultimately convicted) of intentionally driving her children into the Kansas River near downtown Lawrence, killing one of them and critically injuring the other.
Buchhorn said the woman, Scharron R. Dingledine, was verbally abusive, was on suicide watch and was harrowing to share space with — a woman who really had cruelly murdered a child.
“I would just cry and beg, ‘please get me out of this room,'” she told the Journal-World.
A man identifying himself as a lifelong Lawrence resident set up a GoFundMe account on Thursday to help Buchhorn and her family recover. The post indicates that “Kansas has a statutory claim that Carrody can make against the State for her wrongful conviction. Carrody is pursuing that claim, but it will take time.”