Subscribe for 17¢ / day

HAMILTON - He was her Walker Texas Ranger man.

And she was the bravest little 6-year-old girl he'd ever met.

It's been almost 15 years since the two had their photograph taken in Ravalli County Attorney George Corn's office.

Amber Jessop's head just barely cleared the top of the desk, and back then Corn's hair was brown. That simple 3-by-5-inch photograph was something both of them treasured.

"I used to carry that picture in my back pocket all the time," Jessop said. "I'd tell the kids that he was Chuck Norris from the 'Walker Texas Ranger' television show. They always fell for it."

Corn kept the same photograph on his desk - a vivid reminder of both courage and injustice.

"You live with cases like this one," he said. "You wear a case like this one and never forget it, nor should you as part of your obligation and duty to the victim.

"She was the bravest little girl I'd ever met. We've stayed in touch all through the years."

This case started on a brief sunny day during a very rainy July in 1993.

The sunshine called Amber Jessop, a 6-year-old Pinesdale girl, when she looked outside her door. With a few dollars from her sister, she picked up her bike and headed to the store just a couple of blocks away to buy some penny candy to share with her siblings and cousins.

She never made it back home.

That same day, a strange car was seen cruising around the small community. No one knew the man sitting inside the older vehicle with rust on its sides.

Amber's cousins were watching her pedal her bike home from the store, anxious to share the candy she was carrying. They lost sight of her when the strange car pulled in between her and them.

By the time they got to the spot where they'd last seen the car and Amber, she was gone.

That scene is something Amber's mother, Sylvia Mahr, will never forget. She had just returned from an errand when she spotted the commotion alongside the road.

"There was her bike and candy spread all over the ground," Mahr said. "I told the kids not to touch anything. I went home and immediately called 9-1-1 and told them that 'I think my daughter has been abducted.'

"I'll never forget that feeling that I had when I came around the corner and saw her bike lying there and the candy scattered all over the ground. It was horrible."

A few hours later, a 42-year-old man named Kenneth L. Whitlow walked into Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital with Amber. The little girl appeared dazed and her pants were bloody. The man with brownish, graying hair and a blue tattoo said he'd found the girl wandering along Skalkaho Road southeast of Hamilton.

After several Pinesdale residents identified Whitlow's car as the one they'd seen driving through town before Jessop's disappearance, he was arrested.

It was discovered later that Whitlow was a convicted sex offender from Alaska.

Jessop initially said she'd been assaulted by a woman, but later identified Whitlow as her assailant, saying she'd made up the other story because Whitlow had threatened her with a knife and said he'd kill her if she told the truth.

Nine months later, it would take a Ravalli County District Court jury only three hours to find Whitlow guilty of sexual intercourse without consent and aggravated kidnapping. He was sentenced to 120 years in prison.

At that point, Jessop and Mahr believed they'd made an important first step in moving their lives forward and putting the terrifying incident behind them.

Corn told them there would probably be an appeal. That was the normal course of events, but there wasn't much worry that Whitlow's conviction would be overturned.

A DNA expert testified that Amber Jessop's blood was found on Whitlow's fingers. His hair and a fiber from inside his vehicle were found inside the young girl's underwear.

In its ruling to turn down the appeal, the Montana Supreme Court would say there was "overwhelming evidence" in Whitlow's conviction.

A good part of that evidence was gathered in testimony from a little girl who had to sit on some telephone books to see over the railing from the witness stand.

She told the jury about Whitlow's blue devil tattoo that looked very similar to the Corvallis school mascot. She told them about the inside of his car and the cigarettes he smoked. She told them what happened. And then she pointed her finger at him.

"Something like that would be stressful for an adult," Corn said. "It certainly wasn't an easy thing to do for a 6-year-old girl. Š She was incredibly brave."

That moment, when Jessop walked out the back door of the courtroom, is another that will stay with Mahr forever.

"I was right there when she came out the door," Mahr said. "She was shaking like a leaf. I grabbed and held her. It's all I could do. I just held onto her. And I kept thinking, it was worth it, because now it's finally over."

But it wasn't over - not even close.

No one was surprised when Whitlow's first appeal was turned down in 1997.

Jessop and her mother breathed a sigh of relief.

"I remember being pretty happy because, you know, he'd threatened to kill me if he ever got out, and this made it seem pretty sure that he would never get out," Jessop would say later.

But Whitlow's lawyer, Jim Shockley of Victor, apparently wasn't dissuaded by the evidence and said he believed that Whitlow was a "good Samaritan" who'd been wrongly convicted.

According to court records, Shockley sought advice from both his brother, an Alabama police officer, and his brother's father-in-law, a retired FBI agent. He also wrote to Jeff Renz, an attorney who heads the University of Montana's School of Law criminal defense clinic.

UM law students use the clinic to get hands-on experience on a variety of cases, according to the clinic's Web site. The clinic also represents prisoners in post-conviction proceedings in state courts, the Web site said.

Shockley and Renz worked together to file a petition for post-conviction relief in March 1999, on grounds that Shockley had done such a poor job of questioning several jurors about their potential bias - to the point that Whitlow's first trial was flawed.

"I thought we'd been to hell and back and all I could think was they were dragging us back there again," Mahr said. "This changed her life. It changed my life. It didn't make us victims, but that was because we didn't let it."

District Judge Jeffery Langton dismissed the petition, ruling it hadn't been filed in a timely manner. Renz appealed Langton's decision to the Montana Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reversed Langton's ruling and ordered another hearing to give Renz an opportunity to question Shockley about his tactics in seating two jurors.

Renz claimed that Shockley had been ineffective in asking enough follow-up questions to two men who said that while they had some knowledge of the case, they believed they could listen to the evidence and render a fair verdict.

Shockley filed an affidavit with the court in March 1999 - five years after he had helped picked Whitlow's jury - attesting to the fact he couldn't recall why he didn't question the prospective trial jurors on issues about the case brought up by Renz.

"At the time I obviously thought that they were not biased, but after reading the draft of the Memorandum of the Petitioner, it appears I should have asked more questions," Shockley said in the affidavit.

Renz and Corn questioned Shockley for five hours during a May 2002 hearing.

Langton didn't buy Renz's argument.

"The court finds compelling Mr. Shockley's testimony that for five years after Whitlow's trial and conviction, until March of 1999, he believed he had seated an unbiased jury of Whitlow's behalf," Langton wrote.

Langton ruled against the petition in a 57-page opinion.

Again, Renz appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.

In a decision in mid-April - almost 15 years after Whitlow kidnapped Amber Jessop - the Montana Supreme Court sided with Langton, saying Whitlow and Renz failed to show that Shockley had rendered a deficient performance during jury selection.

Corn called Mahr with the news.

"He told me, 'This time it's really over,' " she remembered. "That's when the tears started. Š That chapter of our life finally gets some closure. It's been such a long time in coming."

Corn doesn't mince words in talking about the last series of legal maneuverings in the case.

"This part of the case was terrible," Corn said. "It was so cruel and so utterly wrong. It was totally incompatible with justice. Š Thank goodness it's finally over."

Corn said the law clinic's decision to turn the case into an academic exercise completely lost touch with the fact that people's lives were being impacted.

"This was all about lawyers wanting to play games," Corn said. "Lawyers kept this case open for 10 more years beyond what it should have been. It brought on terrible anguish on the victim and her family.

"Just now they are getting justice."

Mahr is equally disgusted.

"As the mother of a kidnapped daughter, I don't think I have to be objective," she said. "I think I get to have an opinion. It sounds to me like some professor up there had too much time on his hands."

As for Shockley: "I'll always believe that he was just mad he lost," Mahr said. "I think it was an ego thing. It was a big case and he wanted to win."

On Thursday, Shockley said he hadn't yet heard about the Montana Supreme Court decision in the case. Shockley maintained Whitlow's innocence to this day.

"I never thought he did it," Shockley said. "I still don't believe he did it."

In an e-mail, Renz said he refuses to "take cases purely for 'academic exercises.' "

"When the Petition for Post-conviction Relief was filed in Mr. Whitlow's case, the Montana Supreme Court had established two sets of rules, one governing the standard for effective assistance of counsel and the other governing the duties of defense counsel when examining and selecting a jury," Renz said. "We were satisfied that those rules applied to Mr. Whitlow's trial."

Jessop is 21 now. She's a junior at the University of Montana with a daunting double major - physics and math.

She's done her best to put that part of her past away.

That wasn't always easy with the case still working its way through the legal system.

"It was on my mind before I heard about the latest decision," Jessop said. "I've expected it for such a long time. I always tried not to worry about it too much. There was so much physical evidence.

"But I couldn't help it. There was always a little bit of worry."

As she looks back on her life so far, Jessop believes she's done well to make something good out of something so difficult.

"I've always had this sense of survival. I've always been kind of brave," she said. "I've been willing to take some risks. I'm sure that experience strengthened me in some ways."

And it's given her some beneficial relationships. It's made her bond with mother that much stronger. And her friendship with Corn will likely last a lifetime.

"We both started crying when he told me about this latest decision," Jessop said.

Both Jessop and Mahr say there a lot of reasons to be thankful.

"There were so many miracles along the way," Mahr said. "She came home alive. That was the most important miracle. I can deal with all the other stuff. I can't deal with dead. I can't deal with him not being convicted."

"We're finally sliding into home base," she said. "I'm always surprised. How do you get so much bad luck and good luck at the same time? My daughter has come out the other side as a strong young woman.

"We all can never forget that."

Reach Perry Backus at (406) 363-3300 or by e-mail at pbackus@lee.net.

0
0
0
0
0
You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.