After 20 years, I heard her laugh

Originally posted DEc. 1, 2008

When I think about what kind of mother I want to be, Sylvia Bouchard comes to mind. She has been on my mind for nearly 20 years, ever since the day a jury declared her son guilty of murder.
I covered the case. I stood near her in the courtroom. She cried no tears that I could see. She simply clutched her purse and walked up to her son, who had laid his head on the defense table.
Her son, Steven Barnes, was 23.
So was I.
I was a reporter for The (Syracuse, N.Y.) Post-Standard. I was just barely a year into my career. Sylvia Bouchard and I both knew that Steven Barnes did not kill 16-year-old Kimberly Simon, a cheerleader from the small Oneida County community of Whitesboro.
He did not rape her.
He did not strangle her.
Many in the community knew that too, and they rallied behind him. They raised money for his defense when he was indicted more than three years after the 1985 homicide. They filled the courtroom during his trial. They offered his mother a shoulder to lean on, but I never saw her take it.
What I saw was a woman who was focused and determined. A woman who knew she could not afford to break. She was determined to prove her son innocent, but she was also determined that he would be a model prisoner and that, if all efforts to free him failed, he would serve as little of his 25-year-to-life sentence as possible.
She succeeded on both fronts.
On Nov. 25, Steven Barnes received a call in prison. He turned to tell anyone who could hear him that he was going home, thanks to the Innocence Project and DNA analysis. The guards cheered. The prisoners cheered. They loved Steven. He had all the privileges any prisoner could have. He was good. He was honest. He was the boy his mother had raised him to be.
Steven Barnes was a victim. I am generally forgiving of jurors and even of prosecutors. They are people, just like us and they can easily be wrongly convinced. But the trial of Steven Barnes was a joke. The jurors should be ashamed and remorseful. The prosecutor should be investigated. The police who investigated the case and testified should be on trial themselves.
Their evidence consisted of tire treads, soil samples, hair samples and a 35-year police force veteran who said he saw Steven Barnes driving away from the murder site at about the time Kimberly was killed and that he could clearly identify this stranger as his pickup truck passed at 25 mph.
The expert who presented the soil and hair samples made it clear that the tests were not reliable. The police officer and two other witnesses who claimed to have seen Steven Barnes that night gave grossly conflicting testimony to the grand jury, testimony that was presented during the trial.
No one saw Steven Barnes with Kimberly Simon. No one presented a valid motive. No reliable physical evidence connected him to the crime. No witnesses gave reliable testimony.
Yet the prosecutor pursued the case and the jury found him guilty.
It was enough to make any mother crumble.
In the face of it all, Sylvia Bouchard stood her ground. She did not cower with fear. She did not collapse in despair. She did not let down her guard, at least not publicly.
She was strong.
She was reactive and proactive.
She was mother to her son through two decades of imprisonment.
I talked with her and her son on the phone this evening. It had been 18 years since I’d spoken to her. Throughout the trial and the appeals and the fund raisers, I had never heard laugh. I don’t recalled ever seeing her smile. All I saw was that focus, that determination.
This evening, I heard her laugh.

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