Lisa Randall stepped into the bright sunlight Thursday morning, July 22, surrounded by family, friends, and her attorney.
Randall took a deep breath and held onto the youngest of her five adult children, daughter Brenna. She pulled one of her pant legs up a few inches to expose the ankle monitor she had been wearing since a judge released her on house arrest more than two years earlier.
"I want to get rid of that thing right now," Randall said to no one in particular. "It is awful, awful — just awful."
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But not nearly as awful as what she had been facing for nearly three years — which was the possibility of life behind bars or (until recently) execution by the State of Arizona.
A few minutes earlier, Superior Court Judge Mike Kemp had dismissed a first-degree murder/aggravated child-abuse case against the 49-year-old former Peoria daycare operator.
Kemp's order came a few days after Maricopa County prosecutors informed him that they didn't have the evidence to convict Randall at trial, which had been scheduled to start August 2.
"The dismissal is in the interests of justice," Deputy County Attorney Belle Whitney told the judge at the short hearing.
Any chance for a conviction ended abruptly after an expert witness hired by prosecutors to analyze the evidence concluded last month that the state's case against Randall was flawed to the extreme — he didn't think there even had been a homicide.
"I cannot support the cause of death as being blunt-force trauma of the head and neck," Dr. Cliff Nelson, a medical examiner for the state of Oregon, wrote to case prosecutors Whitney and Frankie Grimsman. "Not only is the conclusion unsupported, I feel most of the observations leading to that conclusion are in error."
It was a stunning turn of events in an emotional case that New Times had investigated for almost two years before publishing last week's cover story, "Phantom Murder," available on our Web site.
The story, which current Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley cited at a press conference later that day as a "fair and extremely thorough" guide to learning what went wrong with the case, described how it was fraught on with nagging medical questions about the tragic April 2007 death of 4-month-old Dillon Uutela.
The infant suffered a cardiac arrest at Randall's home (where she ran her daycare business) on the late morning of April 18, 2007, and never regained consciousness after paramedics got his heart going again.
Dillon died a few days later at Phoenix Children's Hospital.
Doctors there (Adam Schwartz and Jennifer Geyer) — and, later, a pathologist at the Office of the Medical Examiner (Kevin Horn) — told Peoria police with great confidence that Dillon's death came as the result of intentionally inflicted blunt-force trauma at the hands of Randall.
Those doctors said it was overwhelmingly clear to them that Dillon had sustained several injuries — retinal hemorrhages, bleeding inside his brain, and skull fractures — during his short time with Randall.
Dillon had been at Randall's home for only about an hour when she frantically called 911 after finding him unconscious and not breathing.
It should have come as no surprise that Peoria police soon tried to wring a confession from Randall during several interrogations. But Randall didn't confess to hurting Dillon, either accidentally or intentionally.
A county grand jury indicted the woman on the murder and abuse charges in November 2007.
A few months later, according to Romley, his predecessor as county attorney, Andrew Thomas, overruled a review committee of veteran office prosecutors and ordered the case against Randall to be adjudicated as a capital crime.
Randall's family scraped together the funds to pay Tempe-based attorney David Cantor to represent her. Cantor and colleagues found — and paid — medical experts who strongly disagreed with the prosecution's point of view.
One of the experts, Dr. F. Ralph Berberich of Berkeley, California, concluded, "It would appear most likely that this baby, in recovery phase from a viral illness, had a SIDS-like event leading to apnea and cardiopulmonary arrest from which he was resuscitated. There followed the physical effects, laboratory abnormalities, and organ failure associated with profound and prolonged apnea."
(Apnea, according to the Mayo Clinic's Web site, is "a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts during sleep.")
Dr. Nelson said he couldn't disagree with that analysis and added, "At this point, the cause of death remains undetermined . . . I have had other cases thought [by pediatricians] to be deaths due to inflicted head trauma by which, after complete death investigation, proved the result of a SIDS-like event."
The dismissal of the murder case against Randall was the third "defeat" suffered by Peoria police in child abuse/murder cases in recent years.
In February 2006, a county jury acquitted Delano Yanes of first-degree murder and child abuse in the horrific death of his 11-month-old son. The deputy county attorney in that case, Grimsman (who later joined the Lisa Randall prosecution team), claimed that Yanes had sodomized the infant during a 20-minute window and that the trauma had exploded the baby's heart.
But DNA was lacking, and medical experts disagreed on every important piece of evidence, including whether the baby had been sodomized.
Peoria police arrested Yanes at his son's viewing shortly after the death.
(On July 18, another jury awarded Delano Yanes $855,000 in civil damages after finding two sheriff's detention officers, John Noble and Santos Hernandez, legally responsible for beating him at the county jail after he was arrested.)
In May 2009, prosecutors dropped a murder/child abuse case against Craig Rettig, charged in 2004 in the death of 19-month-old Cameron Whetstone, son of his live-in girlfriend.
Rettig had been babysitting in July 2004 when the toddler suddenly took ill and stopped breathing. Unlike Lisa Randall, who spent seven months in jail (in three stints) before making bail, Rettig was locked up only for three days before he was released on bond.
Three forensic experts concluded long before the case was dismissed that the baby's head injury occurred up to a week before he died, not in the few hours that assistant medical examiner John Hu said it had.
"The medical examiner made a drastic error," Rettig's attorney told the Arizona Republic after the dismissal, "but his error was premised on a faulty investigation by the police."
In hindsight, Peoria police, specifically lead case agent Kevin Moran, did rush to judgment in the Randall case.
But the cops did so only after the pediatricians at Phoenix Children's Hospital and the doctor who performed the autopsy on Dillon expressed their opinion that the baby could have been hurt only by Randall.
Lisa Randall tells New Times that she went to work as usual at a local supermarket on the day after Judge Kemp dismissed her case.
"I hadn't told anyone there about my situation," she says, "but they saw it on the news, and they were reading the story in your paper. Someone asked me how I had been able to come into work every day with a smile on my face and be nice to people. Well, I think going to work every day, and trying not to think about what was going on with me, helped me keep my sanity."
She says her 18-year-old, Brenna, with whom she has been living at a relative's Peoria home for two years, still won't sleep alone at night: "I've got to be there next to her, holding her. I think she's going to heal, but she's not there yet, and neither am I."
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Randall says her immediate plans are to find someplace to live with Brenna — but not in Peoria. She says she wants to go back to college and finish her undergraduate degree in nursing.
"New beginnings," she says. "It's very unreal to me. Children were my entire life. I love kids, all kids, and everyone who knows me knows it. My heart still hurts from everything — from Dillon dying, which is so sad, to what they did to my family and me — everything. But I'm free. Free!"
Lisa Randall has a final thought about the fickleness of the criminal-justice system, and how she happened to have the good fortune of Andrew Thomas' departure as county attorney.
"That guy didn't care about the truth or the facts of my case," she says, speaking of Thomas. "He just thought that getting a death sentence put on me would get him some votes down the line. I think that Rick Romley did the right thing here by having his best people finally look at my case and let him know that it was garbage."