Jennifer Del Prete
Illinois Department of Corrections
04/27/2014 at 11:10 AM EDT
For almost 10 years, Jennifer Del Prete, an Illinois mother of two, has been locked up for killing a 14-month-old child in her care after a doctor testified the victim died from shaken-baby syndrome.
But after noting questions about the validity of that syndrome, a federal judge says there is "substantial evidence" that supports Del Prete's innocence and last week ordered her release – although, with an appeal pending, she has not yet been fully cleared.
"I don't think I will see inside these gates again," Del Prete said in a short interview from prison
while awaiting word on a release date.
"I think it's not going to be just handed to me on a silver platter. I think I'm going to have to … I might have to face another trial. But I'll continue to fight it."
Judge Matthew Kennelly turned the tide in Del Prete's favor last January with a 97-page ruling that raised doubts about the science that first put her behind bars. Del Prete, now 43, was convicted of shaking Isabella Zielinski at a home-based day care in December 2002 after finding her apparently unconscious. The child never awoke and died 10 months later.
Testimony showed that Del Prete called 911 and administered CPR while waiting for paramedics. And the judge's ruling says the state's own witnesses contradicted the key prosecution theory heard by jurors: that Isabella died of acute trauma inflicted during the infant's time in Del Prete's care.
She was convicted and sentenced to 20 years for first-degree murder. But the judge said "no reasonable juror" would convict her based on new evidence that challenged the diagnosis, and that the doctor who testified about the injuries ignored evidence that the victim had suffered an unexplained brain injury days earlier.
Kennelly rhetorically asked whether any juror would have found her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. "The answer to that question is a resounding no," he wrote.
Del Prete has always maintained her innocence. Her case caught the attention of Northwestern University's Medill Justice Project, which investigated further and uncovered a letter from a police detective – withheld from the trial and from Del Prete's defense attorney – relaying doubts about the shaken-baby diagnosis from the doctor who performed the autopsy.
Now Del Prete is hoping to be home by the time her daughter, 24, gets married next month.
"It looks very hopeful that – almost guaranteed, not completely yet until I'm out the door, but almost guaranteed – I'll be at that wedding," she said.