McAllen, Texas – For seven years, she’s sat in prison awaiting her freedom.
Rosa Estela Olvera Jimenez, who was sentenced to 99 years in prison in the killing a nearly 2-year-old Texas boy she’d been caring for in Austin, has tried to overturn her conviction to no avail. As an undocumented immigrant, she claims, she’s had no resources to properly defend herself in court.
Now, Jimenez has an unlikely ally in her fight for freedom: the president elect of Mexico.
Granting Rosa's petition could rescue an innocent woman from languishing in prison for the rest of her life, cut off from her daughter and the son born to her in jail as she awaited trial.
- said the brief, filed by Enrique Peña Nieto
Enrique Peña Nieto filed a brief in his personal capacity supporting Jimenez’s appeal, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to evaluate her murder case. He argued that Jimenez was denied due process because she wasn't given funds to hire expert witnesses and had ineffective counsel.
Peña Nieto was governor of the state of Mexico when Jimenez, a native of that state, was sentenced in 2005 for the death of a toddler she’d been babysitting in Austin. The boy died three months after choking on five paper towels lodged in his throat.
Jimenez said the boy ate the paper towels, but prosecutors argued that she stuffed the towels into the boy's mouth.
Peña Nieto, who was elected president in July and takes office in December, was joined in the brief by the current governor of the state of Mexico and a Mexican lawyer.
"Granting Rosa's petition could rescue an innocent woman from languishing in prison for the rest of her life, cut off from her daughter and the son born to her in jail as she awaited trial," the brief said.
It also could also impact other cases. The brief notes that more than two million Mexican nationals live in Texas, and many of them — like Jimenez — are there illegally. Without resources, the brief argues, they are at a disadvantage in the criminal justice system.
Jimenez was five months pregnant in 2003 when she was babysitting the boy and her own young daughter.
"The little boy loved her," said Chris Johns, an Austin attorney representing Peña Nieto in the case. There was no evidence of trauma anywhere on the boy's body, he said.
Jimenez argued at trial that the boy had eaten the paper towels himself and she had a neighbor dial 911 after seeing the boy turn blue. Prosecutors alleged Jimenez held the boy down and shoved paper towels down his throat, according to the brief.
The jury sided with prosecutors and handed down the sentence. Jimenez's children were later taken to live with her mother in Mexico, Johns said.
Jimenez is requesting that the Supreme Court consider her case on her claims of innocence and ineffective counsel. Her trial attorney had asked the judge for funds to hire expert witnesses but didn't do so on the record, jeopardizing her initial state appeal, which was denied.
She later went before a habeas court seeking a new trial. With the financial support of the state of Mexico, she hired expert witnesses, and the judge presiding over four days of testimony from Jimenez's experts recommended she receive a new trial.
In April, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said it agreed with some but not all of that judge's findings and denied Jimenez's request for a new trial.
Ryan Bates, an attorney handling Jimenez's appeal, said that if the habeas judge had such strong doubts, due process requires she get a new trial.
"When an impartial judge can look at the case of a habeas petitioner like Rosa Jimenez and say that it's more likely than not that no rational juror would find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in a retrial, everyone involved knows that there's severe constitutional doubts about the validity of the original trial and its verdict," he said.