Ohio woman seeks justice 10 years after a dropped murder conviction

Virginia LeFever has been free for the past decade, but in many ways she feels like she is still in prison.

Two of her children believe she killed her husband, even though a judge dismissed her murder conviction after she served more than 20 years in prison.

She hasn’t been able to resume her career as a nurse because she can’t explain the long gap in her resume to hospital administrators.

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She hasn’t been declared wrongfully convicted and hasn’t received money from the state for being locked up, making it difficult to rebuild her life.

After 10 years out of prison, her conviction still not declared wrongful

It’s been 10 years since LeFever’s release from prison, but it doesn’t feel like a celebration.

“I thought I was getting my freedom, but that hasn’t really happened yet,” said LeFever, now 69. “I had my family, career and life taken from me for something I didn’t do, but I’m still paying a price for it all.”

LeFever, who lives in Zanesville, is scheduled to appear in Licking County Common Pleas Court in February to argue that she was wrongfully convicted and is entitled to about $54,000 a year plus lost wages for each year she was in prison.

Her wrongful conviction case has been blocked by legal rulings and delays and COVID-19, but the mother of four and grandmother of six is finally going to have her chance to have her conviction officially deemed wrongful.

LeFever’s life changed forever in September of 1988 when her husband of nearly 11 years, William, was found suffering from an acute drug reaction in the couple’s Newark home. Virginia LeFever, who goes by Ginny, discovered an empty bottle of antidepressants in the house shortly before William was taken to the hospital. She told authorities she thought he had taken the pills.

William died the next day at Licking Memorial Hospital. The Licking County coroner would rule that William died of an overdose of the medication, but that he would have died much sooner had he ingested an entire bottle of the drug.

And it didn’t take authorities long to consider LeFever a suspect in her husband’s death.

Investigators alleged that LeFever, a nurse, administered an injection and poisoned her husband. They said that when the drug didn’t immediately kill her husband, she put her semiconscious husband in a closed room with a pesticide fumigant. Only when that also failed to kill him did she call for medical help, they said.

LeFever and her attorneys argued that William’s death was a suicide by drug overdose, brought on by the couple’s impending divorce.

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LeFever said the marriage had been abusive for a couple of years, including one incident a few months before William’s death when he sat on her chest and choked her. She was planning to take her young children and move to California.

LeFever was arrested and charged with aggravated murder and waited 427 days in the county jail before finally going to trial.

The most damning testimony at the trial came from Franklin County toxicologist James L. Ferguson, who testified that only an injection of the medication would account for how the drug increased in strength in William’s system while he was in the hospital, and that he’d been poisoned by that medication.

LeFever was convicted in February of 1990 and sentenced to life in prison.

But in 2009, while watching the Ohio State-Michigan football game in prison, LeFever saw a commercial that mentioned the Ohio State Alumni Association. It triggered a thought that someone should have checked Ferguson’s credentials. With help from a friend, a private investigator and her attorneys they discovered Ferguson had lied about his degree. He said he had earned it in 1972 but actually didn’t earn it until 1988.

Those lies in both the criminal trial and related civil trial earned Ferguson a 30-day jail sentence for falsification and prompted a judge to vacate the murder conviction against LeFever. At the time, the Licking County prosecutor said he believed that LeFever was guilty, but he did not try her again.

Bart Keyes, LeFever’s current attorney, said Ferguson lied in other cases, too, and he is looking forward to her long-awaited wrongful conviction hearing to reinforce her innocence.

Trying to rebuild after 20 years in prison

“To watch her go through all this and wait all this time with the legal roadblocks is so disappointing and frustrating,” said Keyes, an attorney with the Cooper Elliott law firm in Columbus. “She had nothing to do with her husband’s death. We are extremely confident in showing her innocence when she finally gets her day in court.”

LeFever said it doesn’t bother her that some people think she was freed on a technicality.

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She said she “made her peace” with that a long time ago.

But there is everlasting pain from being estranged from two of her four children, who still think their mom is a murderer.

It does help that her son Alex, who was only 4 years old when his father died, believes in her innocence. Alex, now 36, said he was told for years by his brother and sister that their mom murdered their dad. But as he grew older, he read whatever he could about the case and made up his own mind based on the facts.

“I believe 100 percent in my mom’s innocence,” said Alex. ““I grew up and came to understand what really happened and the kind of good, caring person my mom is. She deserves to have closure in this case once and for all.”

LeFever is currently unemployed, but since her release she has worked in several health-care services jobs. She thought about legally changing her name but said it would be another legal hassle. Instead, she spells LeFever with a small “f” when she signs her name.

There has been some good since her release, including earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Ohio State and attending six national Innocence Project conferences, where she has met hundreds of wrongfully convicted people.

She has considered herself to be one of them for more than 30 years, and now she hopes the legal system will soon do the same.

“I’ll live with this on some level until the day I die,” said LeFever, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees. “But it will be a little easier to live with if the justice system does what they should have done a long time ago … admit I was wrongfully convicted.”

mwagner@dispatch.com

@MikeWagner48

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