She is serving a life sentence for what may not have been murder

ST. LOUIS – We told you about a key witness who admitted to lying in a case where Bertha Owens was jailed for life. Now Owens’ original attorney explains why there may have been no murder at all.

Sharon Turlington was working in the Capital Division’s Office of Public Defender when she defended Bertha Owens nearly 25 years ago.

“It really bothers me that there aren’t many remedies in the justice system for people whose trials aren’t fair,” she said.

Turlington represented Owens in a 1998 murder case.

“They offered me 20 years and I was like, ‘Well, I’m not going to take anything for something I don’t know about, nor have I done,'” Owens told us from Chillicothe Correctional Center last year.

It happened at the California Garden Apartments in south St. Louis. Fred Huff lived on the first floor. Owens says she often hung out on the second floor of a drug store. On October 18, 1996, Huff was beaten and robbed. He died 20 days later.

Turlington said there was keen interest in a conviction.

“They have a victim, an elderly white man who was hit in the head, he was in a wheelchair, he was disabled,” she said.

In the absence of physical evidence, the trial revolved around a witness — whom we reported in previous FOX filing investigations — who has since retracted her testimony.

As early as 1998, the judge stated in a sidebar that the witness was not credible. FOX 2 tracked down this witness who told us she was pressured into testifying against Owens or to face her own charges.

“I’m not surprised that happened, especially since Nels Moss was involved,” Turlington said.

Moss is the former prosecutor Turlington faced in the 1998 trial. Turlington recalls having to fight Moss just to be discovered. The victim had been robbed and hit on the head, then hospitalized months before his death.

“There was a lot of resistance from Nels Moss in terms of getting the full autopsy report first and then a lot of resistance to getting the full medical records out of the hospital,” Turlington said.

FOX 2 recently received the autopsy. We found a line in the 9-page report from 1998 that read “intestinal perforation.”

“In this particular case, he had a reason he didn’t want us to see that because it contained that information,” Turlington said. “Basically, the hospital made a mistake and accidentally punctured his colon, and then he ended up dying because he became septic.”

Turlington said she received the evidence so late that it was difficult to find her own medical expert in time for the trial. Owens would have been released years ago if it wasn’t for first-degree murder.

Owens has been incarcerated for 25 years.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” she said during our November 2021 prison visit.

However, Owens’ case could soon break. She now has a new attorney from St. Louis interfering, who you’ll be hearing from soon.

“It’s very problematic that people like in Bertha’s case, where the evidence isn’t particularly strong, are subject to the same conviction as someone who might have DNA and fingerprints and a confession,” Turlington said. She is serving a life sentence for what may not have been murder

Sarah Y. Kim

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