Audrey Edmunds is still catching her breath from a workout. Wearing the same pink polo shirt she wore while exercising, she sits in a cluttered conference room and describes how she spends her free time when she is not at the gym.
"I have a small, 13-inch TV," she says. "I watch various programs. I get the Wisconsin State Journal Monday through Saturday." She strives to work out in the gym every day. "Otherwise, I don't have a real active lifestyle."
A devout Methodist, Edmunds attends Bible study sessions two nights per week. "We're talking about not letting our past problems hinder our future," she relates. "That's helpful, knowing that this is not my life forever."
Edmunds, 45, is incarcerated at the John C. Burke Correctional Center, a minimum-security women's prison in Waupun, 60 miles northeast of Madison. She is serving an 18-year sentence for first-degree reckless homicide. In 1996, in one of Wisconsin's most notorious "shaken-baby syndrome" cases, a Madison jury convicted her of killing seven-month-old Natalie Beard, whom she was babysitting in her Waunakee home.
At Edmunds' trial before Judge Daniel R. Moeser, some facts were undisputed. Natalie Beard's mother, Cynthia Beard, left the child with Edmunds on the morning of Oct. 16, 1995. Soon after, Edmunds called 911 to report having found the child in distress. Natalie was declared dead at UW Hospital.
Edmunds insisted that she did not hurt Natalie, but doctors who examined the child found injuries that pointed to shaken-baby syndrome: brain hemorrhaging, blood in her eyes. Since Natalie was last in Edmunds' care, the jury decided, Edmunds must have caused the injuries. It rendered a unanimous verdict: guilty.
Her last appeals were exhausted in 2003. Yet, earlier this year, Edmunds was back in Moeser's courtroom. In January and February, the argument was made by the Wisconsin Innocence Project that new evidence would exonerate her.
In March, Moeser denied Edmunds' request for a new trial. She is appealing his decision, and she hopes for a decision from a state appeals court by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, she marks time until her mandatory release date in 2009, and she reflects on the toll her imprisonment has taken on her family. Her husband divorced her four years ago. Her three school-age daughters weep when they visit her.
There certainly is enough tragedy to go around. Natalie Beard, who would have been 11 this year, is dead. Yet many believe, and some evidence suggests, that the woman convicted of murdering her - who has been in prison for 10 years - is innocent.
"It's a very sad thing, a baby has died," says Edmunds. "But I'm hoping the true cause of death will be found."
Several years ago, Edmunds was approached by the University of Wisconsin Law School's Wisconsin Innocence Project. Lawyers and students with the project, founded in 1998, aid prisoners who plausibly claim to be innocent. These efforts have helped secure the release of six people.
"They contacted me after they got to talking with a neurologist from the UW Hospital," she says. "When they contacted me, I was still in the appeals process."
Edmunds has worked with successive teams of law students from the project, and with the lawyer who supervises them, Keith Findley. He argued her new case before Judge Moeser at the recent evidentiary hearings.
"We weren't saying anybody made a mistake," Findley says of her jury conviction. "We're saying new science has emerged."
At the evidentiary hearings, six doctors testified on Edmunds' behalf. One was Robert Huntington, the forensic pathologist who conducted Natalie Beard's autopsy. In 1996, Huntington helped convict Edmunds when he testified that the child had probably been fatally injured by shaking within two hours of her death, and certainly within 12 hours.
Last January, though, he said he was uncomfortable with his earlier testimony, and could no longer say how or when Natalie Beard died. Citing research and a more recent shaken-baby case he handled, he said that children may experience a long "lucid interval" before they die. If so, then Natalie Beard might have been injured before she came under Edmunds' care. (Huntington declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Findley also argued that scientists no longer agree on whether the combination of brain trauma and retinal hemorrhaging exclusively point to shaken-baby syndrome. According to the legal brief he filed for Edmunds, "[T]here is no agreement as to the scientific foundation of shaken-baby syndrome."
At her 1996 trial, Edmunds' lawyer, Stephen Hurley, suggested other possible causes for Natalie's injuries - that she choked on formula, or that her parents were responsible. Now, though, Findley says it is impossible to know what really happened.
"Based on medical evidence, no one can say what caused this and when it occurred," he argues. "And therefore, you can't convict a woman of homicide and send her to prison based on this kind of evidentiary picture."
At the evidentiary hearing, prosecutors said the particulars Edmunds is now raising in defense represent mere controversy, not indisputable scientific evidence. "In the end, we have speculation, debate," said Assistant District Attorney Shelly Rusch in her closing argument. "A jury is not a forum, not a roundtable, not a debate."
For Edmunds, not getting a new trial was "extremely devastating. That was a real tough setback for my children and me."
Audrey Edmunds has three daughters: Jenny, 11, Allison, 14, and Carrie, 15. They live in Prior Lake, Minn., with their father, Dave Edmunds.
The divorce surprised Audrey. "He was coming regularly to visit, and things seemed to be going as okay as they could," she says. "The time got too hard. He thought I'd be out on parole."
Now, she says, "We're on okay terms. I haven't seen him in a few years." He has not remarried.
The couple share legal custody of their daughters, who visit their mother at Burke Correctional Center about once a month. She speaks with them on the phone three or four times a week.
"I miss being with my children most of all," she says. Visits with them involve "just sitting around talking, listening to the little things going on in their lives." Because children visit frequently, the prison keeps a supply of playing cards, board games and art supplies.
The visiting is hard for the girls, says Waunakee's Shelley Murphy, 43, a friend and former neighbor of Edmunds who regularly takes the girls to the prison.
"They'd be crying and fighting," recalls Murphy. "You'd have to bribe them. 'If you're really good, we'll stop at Quizno's.' It's so emotional. They'd have their mom, and then they'd lose her."
Still, notes Murphy, the visiting is easier at Burke than at Taycheedah Correctional Institution, a maximum- and medium-security prison for women near Fond du Lac, where Edmunds was until 2004. "You had to wait outside in whatever elements there were," she says. "You had to take off your belt, jewelry. It was like I was a criminal also."
Murphy says Burke "is so much more laid back. When I went to see her after Moeser's decision, the guard brought a box of Kleenex. There is compassion. It was nice to see."
Edmunds receives newsletters and report cards from her daughters' schools, but they are growing up without her. "She's missed every important day of her three girls' lives," says Murphy. "All their first dances. [Carrie] will get her driver's license in July. She'll miss that."
Some mothering tasks have fallen to Murphy. "I bought them all their first bras," she says of the girls. "I taught the first two how to shave their legs, all those things, the things their mom should be teaching them, not things they'd be comfortable asking their dad."
Murphy was heartbroken to get a call from Carrie on Mother's Day. "She can't just call her mom and say that to her," Murphy says. "She has to wait."
Edmunds agrees that Burke is a vast improvement. "It was a total shock to the lifestyle," she says of her first years at Taycheedah. "I'm locked in a room with a tin toilet and a stranger. It's a very rigid environment. You go from having so much freedom to doing things you're told to do all the time."
Burke is on the southwest outskirts of Waupun, a city of 10,691 that is home to three prisons. These include the imposing, 152-year-old Waupun Correctional Institution, two blocks south of Alcatraz Pub on Main Street.
Overseen by grandmotherly superintendent Susan Ross, Burke houses up to 250 women. On a Friday afternoon in March, it was a busy place. On balconies around a central control area, women were cleaning bathrooms and carrying laundry. Their voices, echoing off the concrete walls, made a din.
Edmunds has gotten to know - and like - many of her fellow inmates. "It's humbling to be in prison and know there are some nice people who made bad choices," she says. "But they're not bad people."
Adjoining the central area is the cafeteria, where prisoners eat a diet that is "pretty blah," Edmunds says. "I miss seasonal foods, fresh fruits and vegetables."
But Edmunds has not made many close friends in prison. "It's more just general surface acquaintances," she says. "Just a general 'Hello, how are you?'" She avoids getting into trouble. She walks away from confrontations. She keeps herself as busy as she can.
"It's intense," she says of prison life. "Not being able to do what you want. Being with strangers, which you just have to get acclimated to. You can't do your laundry whenever you want. You can't get in your car and go to the grocery store."
Burke is a work-release facility, which means that each morning Edmunds is driven by van to Badger State Industries, the Department of Corrections' vocational program. She does clerical work at the program's Waupun facility, where inmates make furniture and license plates. She earns $1.59 per hour. "It's good to get away," she says.
Her incarceration has left a hole in her children's lives. "My daughters hurt very much that I've lived apart from them for 10-plus years," she laments. "They don't get used to having me away from them, and I don't either."
The second of four children, Audrey was born in Stevens Point in 1961. Her father taught school for 30 years, and her mother was a housewife. After high school, she worked as a secretary at MSI insurance, near St. Paul.
Audrey and Dave Edmunds dated for a year before getting married in 1988. They moved to Toledo, Ohio, where he worked for Edward Kraemer and Sons, a contractor; she worked as a secretary to the president of Spartan Chemical Company. The couple's first child, Carrie, was born in 1991. "I'd always wanted to be married and have children," she says.
In 1993, the family moved to Waunakee, where they lived for nearly five years. Audrey became a full-time mom. The couple's second daughter, Allison, was born in 1994. They lived in a modest ranch home on Dorn Drive.
"Relationships aren't always easy, but things were going very good," Audrey says. "We went boating. We would travel to Michigan and visit friends. We would cook and entertain - cook out any time of year. The guys would watch football, and the ladies would do whatever, hang out with the kids."
She began to look after other families' children. "I was a neighborhood mom, and people knew I was available," she says. "It was a secondary income. I made $2.50 an hour."
In September 1995, Dave moved to Minnesota for a different job with Edward Kraemer. Audrey, pregnant with their third child, stayed behind with Allison and Carrie, and planned to join her husband in November.
Edmunds knew Natalie's parents, Thomas and Cynthia Beard, only as acquaintances, and she looked after Natalie for just six weeks. When Cynthia left Natalie at Edmunds' house at 7:30 that October morning in 1995, the baby was fussy. By Edmunds' account, she left the room where Natalie was to get her own children ready for preschool. When she returned, Natalie was still, with formula coming from her nose. Panicked, Edmunds called 911.
Edmunds, who had no criminal history, went to Natalie's funeral the following Friday, and cooperated with authorities investigating the death. "Then I saw on the news that something had gone wrong," she says. "What in the world are they talking about?" It became clear that she was being seen as a prime suspect.
The next month, Edmunds moved to Minnesota, as planned. Soon after, she was charged with the crime of causing Natalie's death. She pleaded not guilty in March and returned to Wisconsin in November 1996 for her trial in Moeser's courtroom. Also at the proceedings were dozens of supporters, some of whom also came to her evidentiary hearings earlier this year.
At the trial, prosecutors said Natalie died as the result of being shaken. Doctors testified as to her injuries: subdural hematoma, a folded-over retina, torn veins in her eye. "Classic baby shaking," one doctor remarked.
A witness suggested Edmunds hit another child on the head with a book, and Cynthia Beard testified that her daughter sometimes had scratches and bruises when she returned from Edmunds' care. (Findley says the witness was "not very credible," and Natalie's alleged scrapes were not "serious or unusual.")
The jury convicted her. At the sentencing hearing the following February, Cynthia Beard begged Moeser to show no mercy. Sentencing Edmunds to 18 years in prison, Moeser said she should not be paroled unless she confessed.
"A person does not have a right to get up on the witness stand and lie," he said.
Shaken-baby syndrome was first described in the 1970s, when researchers studying child abuse began to speculate that shaking alone could cause catastrophic brain injuries in infants.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 1,200 and 1,600 children are victims of shaken-baby syndrome each year, and 25% to 30% of them die from their injuries. The syndrome received international scrutiny in 1997 when Louise Woodward, a British au pair, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter by a Massachusetts court in a shaken-baby case.
At Edmunds' evidentiary hearing this year, numerous prosecution experts testified that shaken-baby syndrome is a valid, well-documented diagnosis. Still, in the late 1990s, "significant groups of doctors started reevaluating it, and questioning the scientific basis of shaken-baby syndrome," says Keith Findley, Edmunds' lawyer.
A measure of the disagreement: Experts do not generally agree on what to call the syndrome. It also is known as shaken-impact syndrome and abusive head trauma, among other terms.
One of the doctors questioning shaken-baby syndrome is John Plunkett, a retired Minnesota pathologist who has testified for defendants in numerous shaken-baby cases.
"It doesn't exist," Plunkett says of the syndrome. "I was involved in a case 20 years ago in which the allegation was that it was shaking. But the child clearly had an impact injury, and I said, 'Why are we talking about shaking?'"
Shaken-baby syndrome, he says, "makes everything real easy. The last person standing when the music stopped must have done it.... Never mind that no one has ever captured on video any child ever shaken who suffered an injury. Never mind that it defies the rules of mechanics."
To be certain, the science challenging shaken-baby syndrome is not incontrovertible - unlike, for example, the science of DNA evidence, which in criminal cases is the "gold standard," says Findley. But, "We took this case because new science has emerged that says, powerfully, the basis of this conviction cannot be supported."
Audrey Edmunds has come before the parole board and been rejected on three occasions. She has another parole hearing in October, but is not optimistic. First of all, she has not heeded Judge Moeser and admitted to killing Natalie Beard. Even if she had, she notes, "There are many people in prison who admit to what they've done, and said sorry, and they're still given the same excuse I am: You haven't done enough time."
Stephen Hurley, Edmunds' trial attorney, has followed her appeals closely but did not go into the courtroom for the recent hearings. The case, he says, has always troubled him:
"Audrey insisted she did not did do this, and I saw nothing in her background or behavior that supported that she would ever do this, and indeed, I saw much to the contrary. And I worry - and have for 10 years - that someone who didn't do what she was accused of is behind bars."
Says Shelley Murphy, Edmunds' former neighbor, "I feel very strongly in her innocence. She is a good person."
And so Audrey Edmunds waits to be released, perhaps until 2009. All the while, she maintains hope.
Speaking of her plight, she says, "You can either dwell on it and let it beat you down, or you can hang on and know it's going to get better."