ST. LOUIS — The sole eyewitness in a 1996 murder case says she lied about seeing a female killer. It’s not enough to free a 63-year-old woman who’s already served 25 years behind bars.
We traveled to the Chillicothe Correctional Center to talk to convict Bertha Owens, who is sentenced to life.
We asked, “Did you kill Fred huff?”
Owens, “No, I did not.”
We followed up, “Were you there?”
Owens, “No, I was not.”
It happened at a South St. Louis apartment complex called California Garden Apartments. Fred Huff lived on the first floor. Bertha Owens says she often hung out in a drug house on the second floor. On October 18th, 1996, Huff was beaten and robbed. He died 20 days later.
“In the beginning, they offered me 20 years and I was like well, I’m not going to take anything for something I don’t know nothing about – nor did I do,” Owens said.
If she’d have taken the deal, she’d be five years free.
“December the 9th it would be 25 flat years. It’s a tough pill to swallow when you, ha, don’t know anything – because I had to learn about the crime as I went through the process,” Owens said.
Retired cop Charley Schneider believes her. We asked him, “Is there any physical evidence she did it?”
Schneider answered, “None. None whatsoever.”
Schneider investigated Owen’s case as a private investigator for the Midwest Innocence Project in 2006, eight years after the conviction.
“This one is so obvious,” Schneider said.
The 1998 trial transcript reveals a single eyewitness, a woman with a criminal record and pending charges at the time. She testified she was a lookout for five people, including Bertha Owens, who she said beat and robbed Huff.
The trial record shows the witness caught in repeated lies, it says the judge privately told attorneys during the trial, “She’s said so many things it’s possible to impeach almost everything. I don’t think she’s said the same story about anything.”
Prosecutor Nels Moss answered sarcastically, “Thank you for commenting on the credibility loudly enough for the jury to hear.”
Schneider said, “It makes such little sense you think how in the world could anybody possibly manipulate the jury?”
Schneider said he got his answer when he found a juror eight years after the verdict and life sentence – and asked her, “What was there about this trial that caused you to think bertha was guilty and she said oh my I can’t remember. Haha and I’m like holy cow.”
Schneider said he then found that star witness and that she admitted in a 2007 affidavit, “I lied about Bertha because I was afraid of what would happen to me. I heard about the beating of Fred after it happened.”
Schneider then told us, “I even think I know who did it.” He said the star witness might know too.
We will continue our search for her as Bertha Owens remains locked up for life. She remains hopeful the courts will review her case, despite no sign that’s coming soon.