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Deliverance

A telekinetic teenager became a convicted killer. Can a group of strangers prove that Christina Boyer is really a victim of injustice?

A telekinetic teenager became a convicted killer. Can a group of strangers prove that Christina Boyer is really a victim of injustice?

Tina Resch on Unsolved Mysteries.
The Atavist Magazine, No. 100


Lauren Markham is a fiction writer, essayist, and journalist. She’s the author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life and a contributing editor at Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in Northern California.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Philip Kiefer
Collage Illustrator: Emily Haasch

Published in February 2020.

1.

Devilry of the kind necessary to kill a toddler had to be punished, and swiftly. That’s how Sue Horn remembered the public outcry about the murder that still haunted Carroll County, Georgia, nearly 30 years after it happened.

On a foggy Saturday morning in April 2019, Horn sat in the parlor of the Edwardian house that served as the office of the StarNews, one of two newspapers in a rural county wedged between Atlanta and the Alabama border. Short and trim, with dark eyebrows whose movements punctuated her speech, Horn was the newspaper’s publisher and editor in chief. Proofs of the next day’s edition were on her desk waiting to be read, but Horn was happy to take a break. On this story in particular she had some things to say.

“Nothing like this ever happens in Carroll County,” Horn explained. “This was the biggest story it had ever seen.”

One day in the spring of 1992, a three-year-old girl was brought to the local hospital, blue and bruised and dead. Her name was Amber, and she came from what many people would call a broken home. Her young mother had a checkered past. She was also new in town. Most residents of Carroll County are homegrown, and they often view outsiders with suspicion. Horn herself knew what it meant to fall into that dubious category: Though she’d lived in the county most of her adult life and spoke with a slight southern drawl, she was originally from the Northeast.

It didn’t take long for locals to blame Amber’s mother, 22-year-old Christina Boyer, for the little girl’s death. Carroll County is in the Bible Belt, and people saw Boyer as the embodiment of everything they claimed to despise: unwed, abusive, sexually promiscuous, ungodly. Boyer, who professed her innocence, went to prison for life.

The way Horn viewed it, justice wasn’t served. She had done her job as a journalist, examined the facts of the case. She had identified what she believed was a pattern of disregard, or worse. “Christina Boyer,” Horn said, looking directly into the video camera positioned in front of her, “needs to go free.”

The camera belonged to three college students who had come to Carroll County for a class project. The class, called “Making an Exoneree,” tasked Georgetown University undergraduates with reviewing the circumstances that led to a purportedly innocent person’s imprisonment, producing a short documentary about what they found, and—fingers crossed—helping to set the prisoner free. The young women researching the Boyer case jotted down observations in their notebooks, adjusted the camera, and nodded along with Horn’s insistent monologue. Horn knew just what she wanted to say; she didn’t hesitate once. This wasn’t her first rodeo on the matter of Christina Boyer.

If you zoomed out, the scene took on a kaleidoscopic aspect: I was taking notes on the students, who were taking notes on the reporter, who for years had been taking notes on Boyer. That we’d wound up in the same room together was a testament to the cultural phenomenon of journalists and amateur sleuths exposing cases in which people may have been wrongfully convicted of a crime. For Boyer, it was only the most recent chapter in the saga that followed Amber’s death. Students, reporters, lawyers, artists, a romantic suitor, paranormal enthusiasts—a parade of personalities had made themselves part of her story by offering themselves up as potential saviors. They had done so out of genuine concern for her, but in some instances they had also used Boyer as a screen to project their own desires and ambitions. Among her champions were people content to remain in the wings and others who’d crept into the limelight, where the line between egoism and altruism became thin and trembling.

Boyer, now 50, has spent more than half her life in prison. She is warm and agreeable, with brown eyes and cropped sandy-blond hair. Her voice is honeyed—when she asks how you’re doing, you can sense her sincere desire to know the answer. She also seems impressible, as though anything said to her will leave a mark. Her magnetism, I came to realize, is in part her baldness of hope—her ardent, almost guileless wish to be delivered.

Long before she was accused of killing her daughter, Boyer was susceptible to aspiring emancipators, people swooping in with promises to pluck her from her circumstances. And why not? A person in Boyer’s shoes had to take what she could get.

Sue Horn of the StarNews

2.

Boyer’s first would-be savior was the state of Ohio. She was born in 1969, and her parents couldn’t keep her, so as an infant she was handed over to child services. She was placed in long-term foster care with John and Joan Resch, a couple who had taken in hundreds of children in Columbus. They eventually adopted her. Things were hard for Tina, as Boyer was called back then. The household was hectic, and the rules were severe. According to Tina, her adopted brother began molesting her when she was 12, but she was afraid to tell their parents. “Finally, I did tell them, but they didn’t believe me and slapped my face,” she later wrote in a letter to a friend.

When Tina was 14, the family noticed something peculiar and alarming about her: It seemed she could move physical objects with her mind. A plate. The curtains. Chairs around the kitchen table. Things appeared to shift uncannily when Tina became angry. The Resches were certain that this was the work of a sinister force.

Joan Resch called a local reporter she knew and asked if he could find someone to help. He was skeptical that what Resch said was true. Still, he went to the family’s house and brought a photographer along. The film Poltergeist was a recent hit; Americans were obsessed with the idea of telekinesis and haunted children. After a few hours of nothing happening, a phone receiver suddenly seemed to levitate off a side table and hurtle across the living room. The photographer captured the object’s mysterious arc across a pubescent Tina’s lap. Her mouth hung wide open as if in fearful disbelief.

The wire services picked up the story, and the photograph was reprinted in newspapers across the country. Tina was dubbed the Columbus poltergeist kid. Predictably, Tina’s story also drew of the paranormal. “The Resch house was a circus,” journalist Stassa Edwards wrote years later. “Media, magicians and psychokinetic investigators were keen to test Tina’s powers, to pay witness to the shadowy poltergeist.” Cameras and audio recorders were kept rolling nearly constantly in hopes of capturing the unexplainable.

Eventually, a reporter saw Tina knock over a lamp when she thought no one was looking. It went crashing to the floor while the teenager looked up at the adults in the room for approval. The news crews left; a hoax wasn’t intriguing. Still, Joan Resch insisted that the previous incidents had been real. Tina didn’t know what to think. Kids at school hummed the theme to The Twilight Zone when she walked by. Some of them said they were scared of her. “Did anybody stop and think that maybe I’m scared, too; that maybe I don’t know what’s going on and it’s freaking me [out] also?” Tina told a reporter.

One stranger was still drawn to Tina. His name was Bill Roll, and he believed that she was the real deal. Roll was a parapsychologist, a member of the small field of researchers who study paranormal phenomena; most mainstream academics deem their work pseudoscientific. What Tina presented was rare even by the standards of parapsychology. Roll described it as “the destructive powers of thwarted emotions.”

Roll moved into the Resches’ home so that he could interview Tina extensively. He taped her every move and sound with a camcorder and a dictation device, following her around and waiting for something interesting to happen. He made extensive notes of various “disturbances,” as well as Tina’s physical and emotional state before, during, and after they occurred. He drew up a floor plan of the house and mapped the movement of various objects. He later wrote that Tina presented “one of the most convincing cases of poltergeist activity” he’d ever seen.

By Roll’s account, the Resches were at their wits’ end. Whatever was happening with Tina was wreaking havoc on their household. “I thought I might have a solution that would appeal to everyone,” Roll wrote in his 2004 book, Unleashed. He convinced the Resches to let him take Tina to North Carolina, where he and his colleagues could run tests to determine the full extent of her abilities. Tina was overjoyed. “My adoptive father had stopped speaking to me, and my adoptive mom and I argued all the time,” she told me. “Bill was like someone who was saving me from drowning in my family.” Plus, she’d never been on a plane before.

Roll took Tina into his home and introduced her to other paranormal researchers, as well as to Jeannie Lagle, a psychiatrist with experience in hypnosis. Together, Roll and Lagle took Tina to get brain scans, see therapists, and participate in parapsychology conferences. Lagle was part babysitter and part researcher. She and Tina soon grew close. On the road, they bunked together in hotels. Lagle was tasked with drawing out Tina’s abilities through hypnosis and making sure the teenager didn’t doctor any test results. She claimed to witness remarkable events—a hairbrush that flew out of a purse and across the room from where Tina sat, a tape recorder that leaped from a dresser. “You just couldn’t believe what this little girl was capable of,” Lagle told me. The goal of the research was to figure out the source of Tina’s telekinesis, and to train her to use her power with purpose.

Tina was just glad to be treated like she mattered. She’d been dismissed as strange in school, in the Girl Scouts, at home. “I didn’t really know at that point what the future might hold for me, but I knew I was different and that it wasn’t always seen as a good thing,” she told me. With the researchers, her differences were her gifts. To them she was extraordinary.

Eventually, her family asked that Tina return to Ohio. Roll and his team wanted to continue performing tests—they didn’t know the source of the powers they still firmly believed Tina had. For the time being, though, they would have to be satisfied with analyzing the data they’d already gathered.

With the researchers, her differences were her gifts. To them she was extraordinary.

Not long after she moved back to Ohio, Tina got married. She was only 16. According to letters that Tina later wrote, her husband was abusive. He bound, gagged, and raped her. He beat her unconscious. When he burned her clothes to keep her from leaving him, she jumped from a second-story window and ran through the snow, barefoot and wearing only shorts and a T-shirt. He tracked her down and brought her home. “People say, ‘Why didn’t you leave him?’” she wrote in a letter. “I did, but he stalked me and my parents and threatened us all.”

After she managed to escape, Tina became pregnant. She had the baby and named her Amber. Tina married another man, whose last name she took, becoming Christina Boyer. He promised to be a father to Amber, but he soon became abusive toward them both. A social worker told the new Mrs. Boyer that if she didn’t leave the relationship, the state would take Amber away. After one beating, Boyer managed to have her husband arrested, and she packed her bags for Carroll County, Georgia, where Lagle and Roll had moved to be near a small university. Amber had just turned three. If Boyer started a new life, a better one, maybe her daughter wouldn’t remember the one they’d left behind.

Lagle and Roll were eager to help. They could even resume their studies with Boyer. But there was a problem, a growing rift. For years, Lagle and Roll had been a team, putting in long hours conducting tests, typing up papers, and preparing conference presentations about the young woman who moved objects with her mind. Then Lagle learned that Roll was presenting at parapsychology events without her. He’d started working with another researcher—a person who’d never met Boyer—and Lagle got wind that Roll was also writing a book. “He was a little Sneaky Pete, always,” Lagle said. “I was the one doing the heavy lifting.” (Roll died in 2012 at the age of 86.)

Lagle suggested to Boyer that they write a book together, just the two of them. Boyer agreed. “It had been my hope,” Boyer told me, “to get enough written to offer to an agent who would pay us to finish it. Then I would’ve had some breathing room financially.” A book would also allow her to tell her own story. In the meantime, Lagle offered to help Boyer get on her feet in Georgia: She paid the young woman five dollars an hour to type up research notes for their future project.

Amber playing.

3.

Easter was just around the corner, and Amber was finally old enough to enjoy it. Boyer, who after staying with Lagle for a while had gotten an apartment in the town of Carrollton, wanted to get the three-year-old a pretty Easter basket full of treats. She also wanted to get Amber new shoes and hair ribbons to match a dress that Joan Resch had sent from Ohio. Boyer needed money to pay for the presents, which was why, on April 14, 1992, she was at Lagle’s office, doing her secretarial work.

A few days prior, Amber had hit her head on a curb after scrambling out of her car seat. She was a “really active kid,” Lagle recalled, always running and falling and bumping into things. She was hard to control, headstrong like her mom. When she developed a goose egg after the curb incident, Boyer called her adoptive mother. Just keep an eye on it, Joan Resch said. If Boyer saw any strange behavior—nausea, vomiting, that kind of thing—then she should take Amber to a doctor. A day later she was fine and back to playing in the yard as usual. Nothing to worry about. The goose egg would heal.

Boyer didn’t want to take Amber to work with her; she knew she’d get more done at Lagle’s office without her daughter along. Her boyfriend, a man named David Herrin, offered to look after Amber at his trailer just outside town. Boyer and Herrin had been dating for a few months. He had a daughter Amber’s age. Boyer’s last memory of Amber alive was watching the toddler settle into Herrin’s lap, a book in her tiny hands.

Work was uneventful. Boyer finished the assignments Lagle had given her, said goodbye to her boss, and got in her car to go home. She’d just pulled out of the driveway when, back inside the office, Lagle got a phone call from Herrin.

“I can’t get Amber up,” he said. The little girl was unconscious.

Lagle assumed that Herrin was exaggerating. “Don’t worry, Christina’s on her way home. She’ll be there soon,” Lagle told him.

When Boyer arrived, Amber was unresponsive. Boyer and Herrin loaded the little girl into the car. While Herrin drove, Boyer gave Amber CPR. She’d learned how at a parenting class in Carrollton. As she pressed against her daughter’s chest, she was terrified of breaking her. Amber didn’t wake up.

Boyer worried that the authorities might take her baby away at the hospital—she knew how quickly that could happen. She yelled at Herrin to stop the fucking car at a pay phone. She always called Lagle when she was in a bad way. Boyer was hysterical as she told Lagle what was wrong and asked what she should do and what if she hurt Amber and why wouldn’t David drive faster? Lagle told Boyer to take her daughter to the emergency room and promised to meet her there.

Amber was pronounced dead at the hospital. Boyer told me she began sobbing when she heard the news. The hospital staff noticed that Amber had bruising on her face and body, so they called the police and child services. The police arrested Herrin because he’d been at the trailer with Amber. They also took Boyer in for questioning. In the police car, her mind wouldn’t stop whirling. “I know now that I was crazy, but at the time I kept asking the officer driving if the hospital would put the covers over Amber, because she gets cold at night and the hospital was already cold,” Boyer told me.

Boyer wanted Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” played at Amber’s wake, but she didn’t get a say. By then she was behind bars: Boyer was arrested shortly after police questioned her.

Christina Boyer’s last memory of her daughter alive was watching the toddler settle into David Herrin’s lap, a book in her tiny hands.

It appeared that Amber had died from some sort of blunt physical trauma. Law enforcement reasoned that it may have happened before Boyer went to work. Maybe it was the fall onto the curb or a beating that Boyer wouldn’t admit to; sometimes internal injuries progress slowly. Or maybe Boyer just hadn’t gotten Amber to the hospital fast enough, as a good mother should. One of the marks on the toddler was a long welt across her face. Detectives who searched Boyer’s home found a belt in a closet. They brought it in, and the medical examiner held it up next to . Someone snapped a photo, which would later be submitted into evidence.

It was the kind of detail that Jack Bell, Carroll County’s sheriff at the time, seemed to relish describing to the public. “Her little body was so bruised all over, you couldn’t tell it was the same child,” he said at one point. Bell was up for reelection, and he touted his commitment to getting Boyer convicted as evidence of his dedication to his job. (Bell died in 2004, three years after Carroll County named a detention facility in his honor.)

Boyer was dismayed. She believed that Herrin was to blame for Amber’s death. When they’d first arrived at the hospital, he kept apologizing to her. “Sorry for what?” Boyer shouted at him. Had he been abusive? Had Boyer missed the signs that her daughter was in danger? She felt responsible for that, at least. “I was the catalyst,” Boyer told me. “I brought David into our lives, and had I not done that, Amber would be alive.”

Herrin maintained his innocence. His legal team claimed that Amber’s death must have been the result of abuse by Boyer. For her part, Boyer admitted she wasn’t a perfect mother, but she maintained that she had never done anything to seriously hurt Amber, much less kill her.

Amber was buried in her pink Easter dress. The funeral was paid for with donations from the residents of Carrollton and was open to the public. Crowds of people came to say goodbye to a little girl most of them never knew. The authorities allowed Boyer a closed room at the memorial, out of the public’s view. She wasn’t permitted to go to the grave site.

When I connected with her 27 years later, Boyer had still never seen where Amber was buried. If she ever got out of prison, she told me, she’d go straight to the cemetery. All she wanted to do was put flowers on the grave.

Amber died in 1992.

4.

A grand jury indicted Boyer for murder, aggravated assault, and cruelty to children. She was accused of repeatedly striking Amber in the head and abdomen. Though her loved ones believed Boyer was innocent, much of Carroll County did not. Local residents were deeply shaken by Amber’s death. “My body felt numb as I tried to imagine the horror that this innocent child must have felt as her own mother allegedly participated in her cruel and violent death,” read one letter to the editor. “It offends me greatly to know that part of my tax money is going to defend and house heathens in nice, new, air-conditioned buildings as punishment for [such] heinous crimes as this.”

Many people following the story believed that Boyer had a guilty profile. It wasn’t just that she was a young, poor, unmarried outsider, or that she had been accused of abusing Amber. Police knew that one of Boyer’s neighbors made sex tapes and paid women to participate. Boyer needed money and appeared in one of them dancing topless. In another, she sat next to the neighbor on a couch while they watched porn together. Halfway through the scene, Amber toddled into the room wearing nothing but a diaper. Boyer jumped up and roughly delivered Amber into another room, where she spanked her. In the lead-up to her trial, this information made the local news. On top of all her other perceived failings, Boyer was labeled a slut.

Then there were the phone calls, more than 40 in all. Back in Ohio, before Boyer moved, child services was contacted repeatedly about Amber’s safety. Boyer insisted that her then husband was to blame: He would report her to the authorities to punish and assert his control over her. Nothing seemed to have materialized from the reports. Still, they didn’t look good—they were strikes against Boyer’s character. So was her history with telekinesis. In May 1993, just over a year after Amber’s death, while Boyer’s legal fate was still pending, Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment about her. It featured Roll saying that he was certain of Boyer’s powers.

Unsolved Mysteries attracted the attention of a man named John Riggle. He was an unmarried retiree in Texas living off social security. After learning about Boyer on TV, he took an almost pathological interest in her case. He wrote to Boyer telling her that he believed she was innocent and that he wanted to help free her. She welcomed his optimism and the correspondence.

They began trading letters, talking as much about themselves—how they spent their time, what they believed in, what they wanted for the future—as they did about her pending case. Boyer told Riggle that if she ever got out of prison, she wanted to get a college degree. “I haven’t been here in jail so long that I forgot there’s good people in the world,” she wrote. “It’s just that none of them seem to exist in Georgia.” She told him about how other women tried to beat her up and intimidate her into staying in her bunk. She wrote about how much she liked to sing; about the coconut lotion her cell mate, who had just been released, left behind for her; about how in the winter the heating system broke and all the inmates nearly froze, and in the summer there was no air-conditioning. “Seems like they want to drive me crazy in here,” Boyer said. “The papers are real good at printing lies. Boy, I wish I could write an article which they’d print telling people what this place is really like.”

Riggle packed up his things and drove in a camper van from Texas to Georgia. He parked near the county jail where Boyer was being held and stayed put. He visited her nearly every week. Boyer welcomed his help but found him strange. Riggle looked unkempt and unwell, with disconcertingly long fingernails and oily hair. But his commitment to her was stalwart, and she was lonely and bereft. “In the beginning,” Boyer said, “I really thought he would be a lot of help. He tirelessly went about trying to find all the information he could.”

When he wasn’t at the jail, Riggle began writing a book about Boyer’s case, which he tentatively called Time for the Truth. (One of the chapters was titled “Phony Autopsy Report”—the book has never been published.) Riggle acted as a shadow advocate, pursuing a parallel line of inquiry to Boyer’s attorney. He reviewed hearing transcripts and drew up time lines surrounding Amber’s death. Riggle got his hands on Amber’s autopsy and told Boyer that it said the blood found in the little girl’s brain was “fresh.” To his eye, that suggested the blow that killed her must have happened shortly before she died. “I tell you right now,” Boyer wrote to him once, “the only evidence I am aware of is there are suddenly a lot of people I never met crawling out of the woodwork to say what a terrible mother I was.”

Boyer was aware that Riggle was an amateur. “The problem is he considered himself another Perry Mason,” she told me. Sometimes she got the sense that he might be bending his understanding of the law to suit his interpretation of her case. “Please relate the facts and situation to me as closely as you can,” she wrote to him. “Don’t flower them up because if it turns out things are what they appeared, or don’t work out the way you figured, I don’t want to get my hopes up only to have them crushed.” The content of her letters vacillated from hopefulness to reverie to fatalism and back again. “I guess I’ll end this letter now,” she signed off a missive. “No sense spreading pain like peanut butter.”

Eventually, Riggle asked Boyer to marry him. He said that once she was free, she could live off his social security. Boyer didn’t think of Riggle that way. She certainly didn’t find him attractive. He’d once donned a suit to impress her on a visit, and while she was touched, “he looked like he’d just climbed out of a casket.” Still, Boyer felt so alone, and he’d done so much work on her behalf, that she considered his proposal. “I was desperate and willing to take any help I could get,” she told me.

He became pushier and pushier with the marriage question. “He would tell me if I didn’t marry him he’d take all the information he’d gathered and throw it away,” Boyer said. He tried to convince her that no one else would help her like he had, like he would. Still, she couldn’t go through with a loveless marriage. In a letter, she told him no.

In response, Riggle mailed Boyer the photos of Amber’s autopsy. She had never wanted to see them. The images were unspeakable. She took them to her counselor, who turned them over to the prison warden. Boyer barred Riggle from visiting her or sending her mail. They never spoke again. Within a few months, he was dead. Turned out, he’d been sick all along.

“I haven’t been here in jail so long that I forgot there’s good people in the world,” Boyer wrote. “It’s just that none of them seem to exist in Georgia.”

Boyer’s lawyer was a court-appointed attorney from Marietta named Jimmy Berry. “He was supposed to be this jam-up lawyer, some hot shot who really knew his stuff,” Boyer told me. She remembered him telling her that he would take her case all the way, help her prove her innocence. Boyer was grateful.

According to his invoice, Berry visited Boyer four times over the two and a half years that she awaited trial. He logged 126 hours on the case, only 17 of which were for court preparation—the rest were for time spent before a judge. He invoiced the state for a total of $6,897.30. Records show that, at the time, Berry was also working on a second high-profile death penalty case elsewhere in Georgia: He was defending an attorney accused of hiring a hitman to murder his wife, who was shot in the head in front of her two young sons. (The attorney was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Berry did not respond to my interview requests.)

According to Boyer, Berry was hard to get ahold of. Sometimes she called and wrote him letters and didn’t hear back. She wondered why it was taking so long for her case to go to trial. Herrin, too, was still behind bars, awaiting his day in court.

Finally, her trial was scheduled for October 31, 1994. In the days leading up to it, Berry arranged for Boyer to take a polygraph test. She passed, which she thought boded well. But the next day, Berry came to see her and said that going to trial was a bad idea. As Boyer remembers the conversation, Berry emphasized that, even without clear-cut evidence, the case against her was just too strong: the photo of Amber’s face next to the belt, the prior accusations of abuse, the fact that she hadn’t taken Amber to the hospital when the toddler hit her head, Boyer’s checkered personal history. And if she was found guilty, Berry warned, Boyer would likely be executed.

Berry suggested that she consider taking something called the Alford plea. An oddity of U.S. criminal law based on a 1970 Supreme Court decision, it allows a defendant to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence, often as a means of avoiding capital punishment. The Alford plea would mean life in prison, but it would keep Boyer from being strapped into Georgia’s electric chair.

Boyer was stunned. How could she plead guilty to killing her daughter? But Berry, she recalled, was adamant: If she didn’t want to die, she should follow his advice. “The being dead didn’t scare me,” she told me, “it was dying by the electric chair that did.”

Soon after, Boyer stood before a judge and took the Alford plea. She hadn’t consulted any loved ones; no one who supported her was in the courtroom. She was also taking antipsychotics, antidepressants, and sleep aids to help her cope with her grief. Boyer pled guilty to murder by “maliciously causing … cruel and excessive physical pain” and “failing to seek proper medical attention.” She also pled guilty to aggravated assault. Berry told the judge that while he believed his client was innocent, the plea was the best choice for her.

“When I signed my name to that paper,” Boyer told me, “I was signing away my life.” She had just turned 25.

5.

Boyer was transferred to Pulaski State Prison, a newly opened detention facility for women. She was on more drugs than ever to help her cope. What would have been Amber’s fourth birthday passed, then Christmas. The milestones tore Boyer apart. Lagle wrote and came to visit, as did Roll. Boyer was also in contact with her adoptive mother. But there was little anyone could do for her. Other inmates called her a baby killer. Would this last forever?

Herrin’s trial began in late January 1995. A medical examiner testified that Amber’s cause of death was a head injury that would have produced symptoms almost as soon as it occurred. Herrin, though, testified that Amber was fine until he found her passed out and “pale as a ghost.” He ran to a neighbor’s to use a phone because the trailer didn’t have one that worked. Herrin called Lagle’s office but not 911. “It didn’t even cross my mind,” he said.

Herrin described Boyer as abusive, negligent, and selfish. The defense made a point of bringing up the belt that was photographed next to Amber’s face after her death.

“Where in Christina Boyer’s apartment did you find that?” a lawyer asked.

“It was found hanging from the doorknob of her room door,” a detective on the stand replied.

“And did you look in David Herrin’s trailer as well for a similar belt?”

“We did.”

“And you didn’t find a belt in his trailer that was in any way consistent with the bruises on the child’s face, did you?”

“No.”

Boyer, who still believed that Herrin was responsible for Amber’s death, agreed to testify against him. The defense emphasized to the jury that she had already taken the Alford plea. It also seized the opportunity to bring up her “telekinetic powers.” Boyer testified that she wasn’t sure what she could or couldn’t do with her mind when she was a teenager. “All I know is that my whole life was chaotic and it was very traumatic and I can’t explain anything that happened,” she said.

“Do those things still happen to you?” Herrin’s lawyer asked.

“No, sir,” she replied.

“So you can’t move things anymore?”

“No, things don’t happen around me anymore.”

“OK. So you can’t move the little yellow marker that I’ve put up there?” he said, referring to a highlighter.

“No, sir.”

“Well, during this cross-examination, feel if the spirit moves you, Ms. Boyer.”

It was mockery, not an invitation.

Herrin was acquitted of Amber’s murder. He was convicted on one count of cruelty to children and given 20 years in prison.

Other inmates called her a baby killer. Would this last forever?

Boyer’s adoptive mother and aunt began looking for a new lawyer, someone willing to reopen the case—a daunting prospect, given the Alford plea and the fact that no new evidence had come to light. Eventually, according to Boyer’s letters, they hired someone who seemed good enough. The lawyer familiarized himself with the case and started digging into possible legal strategies. A few months into his work, however, he was arrested and convicted of statutory rape. There went the money Boyer had for legal fees. She was back to square one.

She was denied parole in 1999, and again in 2007. Sometimes she wondered if it would’ve been better to die in the electric chair. Then, not long after her second parole denial, an attorney got in touch with her. His name was Richard Allen, and he believed that Boyer was innocent. He came to visit and told her as much. He was straightforward, which she liked. He seemed honest and committed. Most important, he would take the case —Boyer couldn’t afford his help otherwise. She felt as if God might be opening a window for her.

Allen believed that public opinion had been Boyer’s undoing. What if people could see her differently? A few days before Christmas 2007, Allen walked into Sue Horn’s office at the StarNews. Horn usually ran the paper with her husband, but he’d just taken another job. Shouldering the work alone, Horn was exhausted and looking forward to a planned vacation. Allen came in, careful not to drop the tall stack of documents he held in his arms. Horn’s face fell. What did he want?

Allen quickly went into detail about Boyer’s case—Horn knew of it, of course—recounting all the missteps that had occurred, all the ways justice had not been served. Maybe the paper could write about it, he suggested. Horn couldn’t wait for him to leave. “I’ll take a look,” she said, to placate him.

During her vacation, Horn reviewed the documents. She couldn’t believe what she was reading. Everything that could have seemed to have gone wrong for Boyer. Horn, too, became convinced of Boyer’s innocence. On January 20, 2008, she wrote a lengthy article in her paper under the headline “The Real Story of Christina Resch Boyer: Did a ‘Perfect Storm’ of Events Lead to a Life of Imprisonment?” Horn followed the article up with an op-ed. “Believe me,” she wrote, “I’m no tree hugging, Bambi loving, soft hearted woman who’s searching for a cause to make my life have meaning. I’ve got enough to do.” Horn continued, “Boyer is serving a life sentence plus twenty years for this death of her three year old daughter. Did she do it? Her lawyer told the judge no at her hearing. But, she sits in prison today. Boyer had no family and few friends, no money. But, it’s possible she can have justice. Read the story. Let me know.”

The article barely made a ripple in Carroll County. “I believe public opinion is that Boyer is where she should be, however one slices up the pie’s guilty pieces,” Horn recalled. “Murder or manslaughter? Who cares. Abuse or neglect? Doesn’t matter. Did she do it or the boyfriend? They are uninterested.” Still, Allen was preparing to petition on Boyer’s behalf, and she felt aloft at the idea of being free. Then one snowy day in March 2009, Allen had a heart attack and died. The petition for Boyer died along with him.

Boyer’s depression returned. So much hope followed by so much failure. So many people who promised to help and then, by their own fault or not, let her down.

6.

Four years after Allen’s death, Jan Banning came to Carroll County. He was a photographer from the Netherlands, and he wanted to shoot portraits of inmates in Pulaski Prison. He was documenting criminal-justice systems around the world; his photos were haunting testaments to inequities and the vast apparatuses that human beings create to punish one another. He found that while some countries he’d visited treated prisoners with a degree of dignity, America brutally dehumanized them. The country had one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, and many of the 2.2 million people behind bars had been placed there by draconian, discriminatory policies.

Boyer thought, Why not have my picture taken? She straightened her hair and did her makeup the day of the photo shoot. In the images Banning took, her eyes are soft, her complexion slightly pockmarked. Her lips shimmer, and her hair swoops stylishly across her forehead. She is clad in her khaki prison garb.

A video about the case that Jan Banning posted to YouTube.

Boyer liked Banning. He was warm and inquisitive. There was a spark between them—not romantic, something else. The more Banning learned about Boyer’s case, the more shocked and outraged he became. To his mind, she had suffered one of the worst losses a person can suffer, then been treated as if she were responsible for it. A few years after he took her photo, Banning wrote to Boyer through JPay, an email system used in many U.S. prisons. When she responded, she was forthcoming and vulnerable, as if writing in a diary. Boyer was glad to have someone to talk to, not unlike how she’d been with Riggle all those years ago. “What struck me,” Banning said, “is that she wrote back to me and expressed clear interest in how I was doing.” He’d expected someone who’d been in prison so long to be self-absorbed, and understandably so, but she wasn’t. “That somehow made it personal,” he said. “I became fascinated by her.”

Banning’s interest in Boyer’s case eventually started to take over his life. He acquired court documents and got in touch with Alicia Van Couvering, a film producer in Los Angeles who a few years before had been drawn to Boyer’s story and hoped to make a movie based on Roll’s book. There was also a German woman, Susan Weber, who’d come to Boyer’s cause after hearing about it on a podcast about paranormal activity, and a man named James Conrad, who once ran a telekinesis laboratory and who published a blog about Boyer. Banning connected with them all. He started a Dropbox folder where he organized the elements of her story. Her letters to Riggle had a file, as did the documents pertaining to Richard Allen, the reports from child services, and the autopsy of Amber’s body.

Banning felt like something of an investigator—he was positioning himself to do something about the injustice he documented. After so many years behind a camera lens, he wanted to leave a mark. “Why bother about one person?” he said, then invoked the spiritual notion that whoever saves a life saves the world. “I wish that was true,” Banning continued. “The obvious response, anyway, is: Why not?

He hatched a plan to spend an extended period of time in Georgia to work on the case. Money was an obstacle. He got in touch with Lagle, who was happy to hear that he was interested in the case. She said that she still loved Boyer, even though they weren’t in touch like they’d once been—time had passed, life had happened. Lagle had a spare apartment in the basement of her house, in a quiet, wooded area on the outskirts of Carrollton; she told Banning he was welcome to stay as long as he liked. After connecting with Banning, Lagle felt compelled to reach out to Boyer and make amends for the lapse in their friendship. Boyer was glad to have Lagle back in her life. (By then, both of her adoptive parents had died.)

In 2018, Banning visited Georgia several times. He went through the archives at the county clerk’s office, read old newspaper articles, made lists and charts of the various people involved in Boyer’s case: the sheriff, the cops, the medical examiners, the social workers, the nurses. He met with Horn, who in turn was inspired to write a new article. It was about how a foreign photographer was helping Boyer get the justice she deserved.

Banning found Amber’s grave and posted directions to it on Dropbox, just in case they might one day be of use. He took a photo of the headstone, capturing the light such that the block appeared to be glowing, as if lit from within. He printed the photograph and sent it to Boyer, who wept when she saw it. To her it looked like God himself were illuminating the grave; having become deeply religious in prison, she thought that Banning was heaven-sent.

Banning asked Boyer if he could share her emails with him on his personal website, where he’d already posted his photos of her. “I would be VERY appreciative,” she wrote back. “Although you yourself may not be able to help me, the more people that know about my situation the better.” Banning posted the emails and included Boyer’s address, if people wished to send notes of encouragement. Letters and postcards began to arrive from around the world.

7.

Everyone interested in Boyer’s case has an origin story. In a way, mine begins in childhood. My parents are criminal defense attorneys, and when I was growing up, they had a home office. “Markham and Read,” my brother and I would answer the phone, like tiny secretaries. My brother learned how to accept a call from a federal prison (press five) by the time he was in kindergarten. I was pen pals with one of my parents’ clients, a man named Michael, who had orchestrated the largest shipment of hashish ever seized by federal authorities. In our house, even O.J. Simpson was likely innocent. I was taught to see the best in people and to root for the underdog.

I first learned about Boyer in 2017, when I was asked by a magazine to write the introduction to a photo essay of Banning’s work. In an interview, Banning evangelized about a woman in Georgia who he believed had been wrongfully convicted of killing her daughter. Maybe, he suggested, I could write about her. I told Banning that, at the very least, I was interested in learning more. He quickly followed up with details.

“It was hard to decide what to send,” he wrote in an email, “as I don’t want to inundate you with documentation. I have tons, but let me start ‘quietly.’” He attached a summary of the case that he’d put together himself, and another document containing excerpts from the transcript of Boyer’s sentencing. He included a link to the page on his website about Boyer’s story. “If you’d like to receive more,” he wrote, “I can send it to you immediately.”

I wasn’t the first person Banning had approached. He’d contacted several other journalists, as well as filmmakers, forensic and medical experts, and Georgia lawmakers, asking all of them to look into the case. “I figured that if people can be tried by media, why not try to exonerate her by media?” he said. He’d launched a Facebook group dedicated to gaining Boyer’s freedom. When some people didn’t take to the idea as enthusiastically as he did, Banning was annoyed. He told me that he’d worked in media for years. “I know a good story when I see it,” he insisted.

In December 2017, Boyer was up for parole. Her supporters, including Banning, arranged for dozens of letters of support to be submitted on her behalf. Boyer’s request was denied. Banning promised to continue agitating to get more attention focused on her case. Maybe he could even raise funds to hire her a new lawyer. “When we come to prison,” Boyer once wrote to Banning, “they drill it in our head that our behavior will play a big part in deciding if we are paroled out.” She did Bible study, she took college classes, she worked as an orderly. “I don’t just follow these rules b/c I am choosing the path of least resistance in prison, but b/c I chose to be a decent person in spite of where I am. It’s kind of a kick in the teeth to find out that it doesn’t matter to anyone though.”

Three months after Boyer’s failed parole bid, Banning was back in the Netherlands when he received word from a contact at Pulaski that Boyer had slit her own throat. She was alive and under medical watch in solitary confinement. For the time being, she was prohibited from speaking to anyone on the outside.

To Banning, the incident underlined the urgency of Boyer’s case. The wrongness of it all was like clear-burning fuel. He had big plans, including a book about Boyer’s life—the fourth such text someone had pledged to write about her. (Only Bill Roll’s has been published.) He was also raising funds, hoping they might help Boyer’s legal situation.

Some of the money raised by Boyer’s supporters went to retain Victoria Smith, a longtime parole lawyer in Georgia. She explained that the approach to Boyer’s previous requests for early release—she’d been denied again in 2018—was commendable but perhaps misguided. By Smith’s rough calculation, each parole-board member—five would hear the case—had an average of about three minutes to look through a file before making a decision. A short, compelling summary of Boyer’s case might go further than an onslaught of letters of support. The good news was that the board had agreed to reconsider the case in just one year. Shorter increments between reviews meant that the board could be getting closer to allowing for a prisoner’s release.

In our house, even O.J. Simpson was likely innocent. I was taught to see the best in people and to root for the underdog.

In January 2019, Banning wrote me an excited email with more good news: A group of Georgetown undergraduate students would be taking on Boyer’s case as part of a class. Banning had read about the course online and discovered that it was instrumental in freeing a man who had served 27 years for a murder he didn’t commit. He had contacted the professor immediately. The professor, Marc Morjé Howard, taught the course along with a childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who himself had been wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years. In teams of three or four, Howard and Tankleff’s students would spend their spring semester in “Making an Exoneree” researching a case and shooting a short documentary about it. “Remember that they are undergraduates, not law students,” Howard wrote in a message to Banning, “and this project does not involve direct legal representation.”

A team of three young women—Sarah Jackmauh, Grace Perret, and Lizzie Porterfield—chose Boyer’s case from a pile of 70 options presented to the class. The students were fiery, optimistic, and progressive, and they were interested in the case’s feminist dimensions. Too often poor women—particularly those of color, but many white ones, too—land behind bars because of poverty. They make desperate choices under impossible conditions, or they can’t afford good legal representation. Low-income mothers are frequently cast as villains. As of 2014, some 40 percent of the women in the National Registry of Exonerations had been cleared of crimes involving children. The Georgetown students were eager to expose what they saw as a smear campaign against Boyer. They believed that she had been punished for who she was, not what she’d done.

Jackmauh, Perret, and Porterfield swiftly took to their research, treating it like a full-time job. They got themselves onto Boyer’s call list and began interviewing her weekly by phone. They divvied up tasks, spending hours poring over documents. They delved more deeply than anyone ever had into the dozens of calls about Amber’s welfare placed to child services in Ohio. Eventually, they would learn that the authorities had followed up on the reports and found nothing of concern. The students were thrilled; their findings seemed like proof that Boyer had been telling the truth about her ex using the calls to intimidate her.

In other instances, the students were disturbed by what they found. The people who looked at Amber’s body—doctors and police—seemed to have overstated any abuse she may have suffered. By the time she arrived at the ER, Amber was already dead. As happens with most corpses, her blood quickly stagnated and pooled inside her, leaving what to the poorly trained eye might look like a troubling network of bruises. Detectives initially accused Herrin of sodomizing Amber based on these natural patterns; they later retracted the claim.

Most puzzling to the Georgetown students was why Boyer’s lawyer had changed tactics so close to her trial date. They tried to reach Jimmy Berry, but he never got back to them. Had he wanted to avoid tarnishing his defense record if Boyer was found guilty and sentenced to death? Did he have other cases in Georgia that he preferred to focus on? Was there a general feeling in Carroll County, shared by people working on both sides of the case, that trying Boyer wasn’t worth the resources—significant for a rural locale—if she agreed to a plea deal instead? It seemed, too, like none of the details indicating that Boyer was a kind and competent mother made an impact on people’s perceptions of her—an audio tape from Christmas 1991, for instance, when Boyer called in to a charity radio show to ask for a doll for Amber, or the money she’d been saving to buy her daughter’s Easter basket.

After two months of research, the students scheduled a trip to Georgia during spring break. They’d be meeting with Boyer, Sue Horn, Jeannie Lagle, and others. Banning wouldn’t be there until the last day. They planned to grab a bite to eat with him at the airport.

I wanted to see Boyer’s many advocates in action, so I asked the young women if I could come report on their trip. “Yes!” they said in unison.

Christina Boyer and Amber

8.

Early on a Friday morning in March 2019, I met Jackmauh, Perret, and Porterfield at an Avis car-rental desk in the Atlanta airport. They had brought along video and audio equipment, their laptops, and copious notebooks filled with the details they’d amassed. They had several three-ring binders thick with meticulously tabbed and indexed documents. Jackmauh also had a bag stuffed with ski gear—they’d all cut spring vacation short to be here.

The students wanted to make it to Carrollton, an hour’s drive from Atlanta, before the county clerk’s office closed for the day. They had to make a pit stop at one point to talk to Banning and Smith on the phone. All three young women got into the back of their rental SUV, connected a cell phone to the vehicle’s Bluetooth audio system, and set up a video camera to film themselves while they took the call. Their class, I learned, required that they document their quest along with the details of Boyer’s case. They’d be getting B-roll of various sites—the trailer where Amber died, the hospital Boyer and Herrin took her to, Lagle’s house—and interviewing people on camera. Maybe they’d even find David Herrin, who’d been out of prison for several years.

The call from Banning and Smith came in. Smith, speaking to the students for the first time, was kind, professional, and frank. She thanked them for being Boyer’s advocates but emphasized that, as a group, they shouldn’t work at cross-purposes. Insisting that Boyer was innocent, criticizing the law-enforcement apparatus that put her behind bars, calling out lawyers in the case for being careerist at the expense of justice—all that could get back to the parole board. Smith was worried that the exoneration effort might derail Boyer’s chances for an early release. (In an interview, Smith told me more about those odds, noting that she had other clients the parole board was likely to find more sympathetic than Boyer, and with less compelling evidence against them.)

While it is possible to pursue exoneration and parole simultaneously, fighting for early release requires that a person take some degree of responsibility for their crime. Smith had already told Banning, in a message prior to the phone call, that she’d spoken to someone familiar with Boyer’s past parole bids who had “repeatedly emphasized that the sheer number of injuries, of child protective services reports, and of witness statements of firsthand observations of Christina abusing the child will make any attempt by us to assert Christina’s innocence counterproductive. Not only will the board members not buy it, we will lose credibility in our other assertions.” Boyer could not bear to say that she murdered her daughter, but perhaps she could take responsibility in a more nuanced sense—for having limitations as a young mother, say, or for making bad choices that put Amber in harm’s way.

One way or the other, Smith said, she really needed to talk to Boyer about the situation, and that was proving difficult. She still hadn’t been added to Boyer’s call list, and she seemed frustrated that Banning and the Georgetown students had. She asked that Banning prioritize the matter the next time he spoke with Boyer.

Banning had been stunned when Smith first told him about the potential conflict between parole and exoneration. To him it was another confounding aspect of the U.S. legal system. Jackmauh, Perret, and Porterfield agreed to tread lightly while interviewing people in Carroll County. They wouldn’t say that their goal was to get Boyer exonerated; they would say only that they wanted to shine a light on the case.

To that end, the students asked, could Banning please take down the information about them from his website? They didn’t want their names associated with a class called “Making an Exoneree.” What’s more, they pointed out, he called them law students, which they weren’t.

“You aren’t legal students?” Banning asked, surprised. (In the Netherlands, as in many European countries, students can earn law degrees as undergraduates.) He promised to take their names down right away.

After the call ended, the students sped down the highway toward the Carroll County clerk’s office. They made it before closing time. Inside, Perret announced the number of the file they needed.

“That the Boyer case?” the woman behind the desk asked. She knew just where to find the boxes. She wheeled them out, and the students pulled document after document, photographing any pages they didn’t already have in their binders. When it was time to go, we brought everything back to the desk.

“I guess we aren’t the first to come here looking through these boxes,” Perret said.

“Oh no,” said the clerk. People had been in and out over the years. Perret asked the woman what she thought of the case.

“You really want to know what I think?” the clerk said.

“Of course,” Perret replied.

“I think there’s not a bad enough place in hell for that woman after what she did to that little girl.”

Boyer could not bear to say that she murdered her daughter, but perhaps she could take responsibility in a more nuanced sense—for having limitations as a young mother, say.

The students had done a diligent and discerning job going through the case files, and they were cool and collected when talking to sources. I admired their fighting spirit and sometimes found myself forgetting that I wasn’t part of their team. It was also easy to lose sight of the fact that they were working on a class assignment that would come to an end that May.

Only when they went looking for David Herrin did their relative youth peek out. Their class had access to a private investigator, who had found Herrin’s address. The young women hemmed and hawed over what to do. Should they call first? Or would that spook him? Should they just go over there? But was that safe?

“I feel like if a bunch of young women showed up,” Porterfield said, pausing to look at me, a woman 15 years her senior, before continuing, “or youthful women, he wouldn’t be so intimidated.”

They decided to knock on his door. We pulled up to a sweet little cottage with a well-mowed lawn. Porterfield and I stayed in the car while Perret and Jackmauh walked up to the house. They knocked. Herrin—unmistakably him, based on the photographs and news clips we’d all seen—poked his head out the door. Perret and Jackmauh had called us and put us on speaker so that we could hear what transpired. They introduced themselves and asked if he’d be willing to talk.

“Better not,” Herrin said and closed the door.

The students were all jitters as they drove back down the dirt road that led to the highway. They hadn’t gotten anything, but they’d met him. Can you believe it? He was free, living his life in a house near a lake, while Boyer was still in jail. (My own attempts to contact Herrin later were unsuccessful.)

Jackmauh’s 22nd birthday happened to be during the trip, and we went out to dinner with Lagle at her favorite restaurant in town, a Hawaiian-themed place with an extensive pan-Asian menu and elaborate cocktails with colorful umbrellas. The waiters knew Lagle’s name, her favorite table, and her signature drink.

During the meal, Lagle admitted that she and Banning had had something of a falling out. He saw himself as Boyer’s savior, but Lagle felt that he’d just breezed into town and taken over.

“Men,” she said.

Their argument centered on the fact that Banning had taken Boyer’s personal journals to the Netherlands with him, so that he could photograph them in his studio. Lagle didn’t like that, even though Boyer had given him permission. (“It’s like nothing was ever secret in my life,” Boyer told me. “I feel like I need to be as transparent as possible for the people trying to help me.”) Still, Lagle believed it was a violation of privacy. According to her, after much back and forth, Banning exploded. He was staying at Lagle’s house when it happened, and they were downstairs in his apartment’s kitchen. He slammed a spoon he was holding into the sink. Banning said he was tired of hearing about how long Lagle had known Boyer. Lagle said she was tired of his self-importance.

“Do you know how many thousands of people will see these pictures?” Banning demanded.

Lagle wasn’t impressed by the prospect. Nor was she intimidated by that spoon. In her view, the journals were supposed to be waiting for Boyer when she got out of prison. They would help her finally write her book, the one she and Lagle had long ago planned together. At dinner, Lagle made a point of noting that she hadn’t finished the book herself. “That’s how much I respect her to make her own decisions,” she said.

The argument suggested that sometimes, somehow, helping a person whose life is on the line can become a zero-sum game. I asked her what it felt like to see people come in and out of Boyer’s life. “It’s always been that way,” Lagle said. “I’m the only person on the planet—on the planet!—who has been around all this time.”

The Georgia Department of Corrections wouldn’t grant the Georgetown students, or me, permission to visit Boyer in person, stating that she was “not eligible” to receive visitors. It provided no other details. Still, Boyer called several times a day to learn about the students’ progress, thanking them profusely each time. “Y’all are doing such a good job,” she said.

The students decided to find Amber’s grave and leave flowers on Boyer’s behalf. We loaded up in their SUV and put Boyer on Bluetooth so they could talk to her. She stayed on the line as we made our way across town. “It’s weird, in a way,” she said at one point, “because I have been here for so many years waiting for someone to care. I had friends who cared, don’t get me wrong, but they couldn’t do anything apart from care.” Now, with Banning and the Georgetown students and her parole attorney, “it’s like, things are finally moving. It’s hard to believe that there are really people out there working on my behalf.”

The final morning of the trip, before heading back to the airport, the students arranged a meeting with the former detective on the case, Mike Thomas, at his home. To their surprise, he also invited over his friend and longtime partner Detective Captain Mike Bradley, who had worked the case, too. Perret was carrying a tote that read “Fighting to End Rape Culture.” Before we went into the house, she turned it against her body so the message wouldn’t show. We settled into the living room with the two men, Thomas’s wife, and their teenage daughter.

“You all from the Innocence Project or something like that?” our host asked. No, no, the students assured him—they were just undergrads learning about the criminal-justice system and trying to shed light on Boyer’s case.

The locals talked for more than an hour. They described how they’d never get the image of that little girl’s body out of their minds. Thomas’s wife remembered the funeral, how many people were there. Wasn’t it strange, the students pointed out, that both Boyer and Herrin went to prison when it was never clear who did what—if anything—to Amber? The cause of death was never pinpointed, either. Both Thomas and Bradley said they felt like Herrin got a lesser conviction and a shorter sentence because Boyer had already submitted her Alford plea. Otherwise, they thought he probably would have been found guilty of murder.

“One of them was responsible,” Bradley said, leaning back into his chair. “The way I see it, both of them went to jail, and that’s justice.”

“I looked at her as more guilty,” Thomas said, “because she was her mother. She was the person on earth who was supposed to protect her.”

The Georgetown students on their way to visit Amber’s grave.

9.

Not long after they left Carroll County, the students got a call from Boyer. She was in tears. A parole consultant had come to see her to prep for her hearing. Boyer left the meeting with a misunderstanding: She thought that she would have to admit to hitting Amber on the head before she died. Boyer didn’t want to say that. Through sobs, she begged the students to contact Smith for her. The young women did so promptly. “We basically sat, listened, and tried to calm her down,” they wrote in an email to Smith, “reminding her that she doesn’t need to make an immediate decision right now and that it would be best to speak to you before she makes a concrete decision regarding how she’s going to approach the parole board. She wanted us to tell you that she’d like to speak with you over the phone as soon as possible.”

Smith, who was on Boyer’s call list by then, cleared up the confusion and also forwarded the email to Banning to keep him in the loop. Banning fired off an angry missive to the students. “I have a very high opinion of your activities but there is one thing I absolutely do not understand,” he wrote. “Is it really that hard to just cc me when sending those emails to Victoria? Do you have a reason not to trust me and my involvement? Maybe you can check with your professor Marc how he came to hear of her case in the first place?”

In our exchanges, Banning and I had talked at length about what informed his quest to free Boyer, why it mattered so much to him. We had talked less about what would happen if she ever won her freedom. In one conversation, he admitted that there could be a personal cost. “If she does get out, that will be very complicated for me, in the sense that, of course I will be happy,” Banning told me, “but what will I do? I’ve dedicated so much time to this, it’s become a part of my life.” In a later interview, he elaborated: “I don’t know what I can contribute if she doesn’t get out.” That scenario, Banning said, “is far worse.”

Often, while sitting in my office flipping through Bill Roll’s book about Boyer or her correspondence with John Riggles, perching on Jeannie Lagle’s couch or taking notes in Sue Horn’s parlor, I felt like I was brushing up against a sinister current of energy. True believers say it’s like that when you walk past a ghost. My stomach would go queasy. Maybe it was the grisly details of the case, or the peculiar attention Boyer attracted, or conflicted feelings about my own small role in her story, or something else entirely.

The laws of physics say it’s unlikely Tina Resch ever moved objects with her mind. Yet Christina Boyer does have the ability to draw people into her orbit and keep them there, at least for a while. They are certain they’re the ones, finally, to prove her innocence. And why not? The U.S. justice system—so unblind, so obtuse, so cruel—seems to demand intervention. Projects like Making a Murderer, true-crime podcasts, and internet forums for amateur detectives are all reactions to alarming trends, including the more than 2,500 exonerations documented since 1989, no doubt a small fraction of the total number of wrongful convictions on the books. Who doesn’t want the wheel of history to turn in the direction of what’s right? Who doesn’t want to play a role in breaking the back of a ruthless institution, to achieve a moral victory that carries a particular kind of democratic power?

So strong is this impulse, and so vast is the number of people the law has wronged, that journalists pitching stories about injustice—myself included—routinely hear some version of the same response: But what makes this case special? As a question of justice, all that should matter is whether Boyer is innocent. But if her case is “special,” it’s because so many people have decided that it is.

It’s nice, isn’t it—to believe? That a teenage girl can shatter a plate on the floor by force of sheer will. That a person’s hope can sustain them through endless disappointments. That in the end the truth will prevail. That bystanders with a conscience can set a grieving mother free. That there’s no harm, as Banning said, in trying.

What’s harder to face, and painful to believe, is that doing good can collide with the limitations of human nature, and that sometimes harsh systems just don’t yield.

All that should matter is whether Boyer is innocent. But if her case is “special,” it’s because so many people have decided that it is.

The students dressed up for the screening of their documentary about Boyer. So did Lagle, who flew in for the May 2019 event, held in a packed auditorium on the Georgetown campus. Lagle wore smart white slacks under a bright red trench coat. Banning couldn’t make it from Europe; he sent his regrets.

The plan was to patch Boyer in via one of the student’s cell phones; after the screening, Perret would carry the phone on stage and hold it up to the microphone so she could address the audience. Boyer was nearly breathless at the idea that so many people were there, eager to hear her story. She was also nervous, but Perret encouraged her. “Just speak from your heart,” she said. “Don’t worry, they just want to hear from you, no matter what you say.”

The event ran behind schedule, forcing Boyer to dial in several times. Every 15 minutes, she got disconnected—prison policy limits the time inmates get for a single call. Finally, it was her turn to speak. “This has been an incredibly humbling experience for me,” Boyer said in her remarks. “I can’t believe how many hours they worked. They worked more hours than any one of my attorneys did.” If she felt nervous, she didn’t show it. But when she talked about how much she missed Amber, she broke into tears. “Thank you all for coming tonight and for listening to my story,” she said.

Later that month, the Georgetown students took their final exams. Porterfield and Jackmauh graduated; Perret had another semester left but had already been accepted early into Georgetown Law School. Victoria Smith submitted Boyer’s latest parole application. It was summer, and then it was fall. Boyer’s parole decision was supposed to be announced in September, but the month came and went without news. October passed, then November. “I try to keep busy,” Boyer told me. She also prayed.

Finally, in early January, I heard from the Georgetown students that Boyer had been denied parole. At the time, they didn’t know why. Turns out, the parole board’s explanation was the same as before: “insufficient amount of time served to date given the nature and circumstances of your offenses(s).” Boyer would be eligible again in November 2020, but Smith was no longer on retainer. For the time being, she’d done all she could do.

Banning soldiered on, committing to several gallery exhibitions of his work on Boyer’s story. He was still planning a book, which would include Boyer’s written responses to the photos of her he’d taken. “I see her as a full collaborator,” he told me.

Meanwhile, Banning felt like the students had abandoned the case. They didn’t want him—or anyone—to think that; they talked about maybe finding an attorney to look over the files, someone who could assess Boyer’s options. They didn’t plan to share their documentary widely, not if it might conflict with Boyer’s future parole bid.

What did Boyer think? After I learned the parole news, I wrote her an email. She didn’t respond for several weeks, and I began to worry, remembering the time she’d cut her throat. When she finally replied, Boyer said that she was devastated, of course, but that she was also working hard to stay positive. “I’m trying to keep busy, keep focused on my future life outside of prison walls,” she wrote.

Plus, she’d gotten some surprising good news. “The same time I found out about the denial,” she wrote, “Jan [Banning] located my birth family!” Since then, she’d been in touch with her birth sister via phone and letters. Her mother, an addict, had died of kidney failure years before. “All I have left is a younger sister, her daughter, my niece and grand niece,” Boyer said. She was thrilled, particularly when she learned that she hadn’t been the only one searching. “It turns out my sister had been looking for me for years!” she said.

Once again, Boyer hoped that her life’s next chapter would be better than what came before. At the same time, an old, unknown chapter was opening wide. Members of her birth family joined the Free Tina Boyer Facebook group. “I just want to make a post and thank everybody for the love and support!” wrote her niece, whose name is Ashley. “My mother … has been looking for christina for years now. We are so blessed and lucky to now have her in our lives. I appreciate everything you guys have done to help her during her incarceration! I can see this page is so full of love for my aunt and it warms my heart. Me, my mother, and my daughter are excited to meet her❤❤.”

“That’s the latest twist to this crazy life of mine,” Boyer told me. Getting to know her newfound family helped her pass the time. It gave her something to look forward to. And who knew what kind of deliverance—of spirit or body—they might bring?


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