Rebecca's Story

Should An Ohio Parole Board Recommend Clemency For A Murderer?

In prison sits convicted murderer Rebecca Hopfer. And the Ohio state parole board now faces a momentous decision: Should it recommend clemency for a 26-year-old murderer? Correspondent Susan Spencer reports.
This is the third time that Rebecca has fought for clemency. In 1994, prosecutors charged Rebecca, then 17, with killing her newborn baby.

It was considered such a heinous crime that Rebecca was tried in adult court – and sentenced to 15 years to life.

She's been there eight years now. But when 48 Hours first met Rebecca in 1998, she was 21, and had served just three years.

She says that memories of life before prison were already fading: "It's hard for me to remember what my personality was like, and how I was with other people. But I know I'm not the same person I used to be."

Rebecca's bedroom – untouched since her incarceration - is a constant reminder to her parents, Ken and Brenda Hopfer, of how things used to be. The room, they say, is of an innocent teenager, not a murderer.

Rebecca grew up in Dayton, Ohio. She was a good student, talented artist and writer who was in the high school band. But at 17, after what she says was her first sexual experience, she found herself pregnant.

She says she never told her parents, and they never caught on -- in part because Rebecca showed few physical signs: "It was strange, because sometimes I even wondered it wasn't just my imagination, because I never felt her kick. I never felt her move."

Then the inevitable happened in the upstairs bathroom, behind closed doors. Rebecca gave birth alone to a baby that weighed just over four pounds.

But the horror only got worse. "The cord was wrapped around its neck, and she was all gray. I could see every bone in her body. I was like, 'She's gonna be OK. She's gonna be OK,'" recalls Rebecca, who says the baby was dead at birth.

"I guess I panicked, and I put her in the bags. And I picked her up and I carried her downstairs and I laid her in the trash can in the garage … She wasn't alive."

Rebecca then went back into the house, and watched TV with her mother. She said nothing to her parents, but once she confided in a friend, that was all it took for word to get out.

Within days, detectives were at the Hopfers' door.

Brenda, Rebecca's mother, said she was shocked and astonished when she heard the news. Exactly who said what would be hotly disputed later. But police got Rebecca to sign a statement, with a very incriminating last sentence: "She did cry and she was still moving once I put her in the bag."

"I was scared and I trusted the police officers," says Rebecca.

Armed with that confession, prosecutors successfully fought to try Rebecca as an adult, citing her age, her lack of remorse and the brutality of the crime. They also claimed that she was just too hardcore to be rehabilitated in the juvenile system. In adult court, there was talk of a plea bargain, to the lesser charge of manslaughter.

But Rebecca says she wasn't interested: "I turned it down because I wasn't going to admit to something that I didn't do."

Prosecutors hammered Rebecca at her trial, but she never changed her story. In the end, the jury also didn't buy her case. "She was 17, and that's part of this that kept getting lost," says Rebecca's mother, Brenda. "Everybody kept treating her like she was 35 years old. We're talking about a 17-year-old girl.

Even the judge, the late Lee Bixler, had misgivings: "It was a shame to ruin her life. The prospect of this little girl being rehabilitated was excellent."

But in Ohio, a murder conviction in adult court means a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life.

What has Rebecca learned from this? "I haven't learned a lot about myself, yet," she says. "Because I still pretty much hate myself."

Remarkably, five years later, Rebecca seems a very different person.

"Hating yourself takes a lot of energy. So it's easier just to let some of that go than to hold onto it," says Rebecca, who still denies killing her baby.

"I've stuck by what I believe to be true, so I can lay my head down at night and go to sleep with a good conscience," says Rebecca.

Prosecutor David Franceschelli is back in front of Ohio's parole board, trying to keep Rebecca in prison. "A lot of girls have babies, and they don't stick 'em in plastic bags like that. And she comes here today not accepting responsibility for the third time. The third time!"

"I don't really have too great expectations, because the letdown is bad," says Rebecca, whose clemency hearing has drawn support from the community.

"They told us that there had never been a clemency hearing where there were 20 supporters there," says Rebecca's mother, Brenda. "And so we're going to be sure that we had more than 20."

Rebecca has been a model prisoner, and she's even earned a college degree. But growing up in prison has taken its toll.

"I just hate the time it's taking from her. She already feels old," says Brenda Hopfer. "She says, 'Mom, I'm almost 30 and what do I have to show for my life?'"

Now, Rebecca's attorney, Madry Ellis, must convince Ohio's parole board to give his client her life back.

Ellis knows that the board is eager to hear remorse from Rebecca. The problem is that she still says she didn't kill her baby, but Ellis argues that doesn't mean Rebecca isn't sorry for what happened.

"She didn't tell anyone she was pregnant, she didn't tell her mother, she didn't tell any of her teachers any of her school counselors, and she admits that was wrong," says Ellis. "Rebecca has been severely punished, when you compare her case to other young women who were in similar circumstances."

In those cases, Ellis says that no one received a life sentence.

One month later, the board made its decision to recommend Rebecca's release. Ohio's Gov. Bob Taft accepted the recommendation and granted Rebecca clemency. Taft based his decision on overwhelming community support for Rebecca, her age at the time of the crime, and her achievements while in prison.

"It just…shock! That's all I can say," says Rebecca, who will spend her first few months as a free woman at home.

"It will be an adjustment for everybody. I'm ready to have -- or at least try to have -- a normal life … I'm ready."