LAS VEGAS (AP) — A Nevada woman who was twice convicted of a 2001 murder and sexual mutilation that she maintained happened while she was more than150 miles away was exonerated Friday by a state judge in Las Vegas.
However, Kirstin Blaise Lobato, whose cause drew an online following and backing from advocates including the New York-based Innocence Project, was not immediately freed.
The 35-year-old Lobato was instead taken to a county jail in Las Vegas to serve a one-year sentence for a misdemeanor conviction in a 2007 prisoner sexual contact case, state Corrections Department spokeswoman Brooke Keast said.
Keast and a Lobato attorney said Lobato was unlikely to be released before next week.
“We hope Ms. Lobato will be released soon. It’s just a matter of time,” said Vanessa Potkin, a chief lawyer in Lobato’s case for the Innocence Project.
Potkin said she will challenge Lobato’s conviction in the sexual contact case, noting that the incident happened just three months after she arrived at Nevada’s Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in Las Vegas.
“She is on the verge of being a free woman for the first time in nearly 17 years,” Potkin said.
Lobato was 18 when she was arrested in the July 2001 slaying of Duran Bailey, whose body was found near a trash bin in Las Vegas with a cracked skull, missing teeth and slashed carotid artery, among other injuries.
Lobato was 19 when she was first convicted in 2002 of murder and other crimes including use of a weapon and sexual penetration of a dead body. She was sentenced to 40 to 100 years in prison.
No physical evidence or witnesses connected Lobato to the murder, and she maintained she never met Bailey. But jurors were told that Lobato confessed in jail that she killed Bailey during a three-day methamphetamine binge after he tried to rape her when she refused his attempts to trade sex for drugs.
Lobato said she wasn’t in Las Vegas when Bailey was killed, but was in her hometown of Panaca, a nearly three-hour drive away.
She said that although she told people that she used a knife to defend herself during a sexual assault in Las Vegas, she was referring to an incident that happened months before and across town from where Bailey was killed.
The state Supreme Court in 2004 threw out the verdict because Lobato’s lawyers hadn’t been able to cross-examine the prosecution witness who said Lobato made the jailhouse confession.
Lobato was tried again in 2006, convicted of manslaughter, mutilation and weapon charges, and sentenced to 13 to 45 years in prison.
The Nevada Supreme Court in late 2016 ordered another evidence hearing, citing “strong alibi evidence” from people who saw Lobato in Panaca and faulting her lawyers for failing to hire an expert witness to pinpoint Bailey’s time of death.
During hearings in October in state court in Las Vegas, the Innocence Project enlisted scientific experts whose testimony about the absence of blowfly larvae on Bailey’s body in the summer heat narrowed his time of death to a period when Lobato was in Panaca.
Clark County District Court Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez issued the one-page order Friday saying “good cause has been shown” to dismiss all charges against Lobato and not allow the case to be refiled.
Attorney David Chesnoff, who appeared before the judge, referred calls about the case to Potkin.
“It’s a tragedy that it has taken almost all her prison sentence for Ms. Lobato to be exonerated of a crime,” Potkin said.