Justice for Rennee Sawicki

A tribute to her memory and motherhood inside the system and out

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Sep 16, 2021

When someone is exonerated in our system, we rarely hear about their families. We see the Netflix documentaries with tears and joy, hugs and relief. But it is different to look into a parent’s eyes the moment their child is acquitted of something that could have sent them away forever.

It reminds me of the movie “A Lincoln Lawyer.” There’s a notable scene when Matthew McConaughey says, “there’s no client as scary as an innocent man.” I knew exactly what he meant. It happened to me once as an attorney. I had a client here in Wyoming who was wrongfully accused of what is known as “shaken baby syndrome.”

What happened was her 16-month-old boy drowned after swallowing some water in the bathtub. That trial, and acquittal, is a whole other story. But for now, I wanted to tell you about a critical piece of it because the parent of the accused was my friend, and she recently passed away at age 50 due to cancer and other complications.

Sabrina Sawicki was wrongfully accused of a terrible crime. But she had a mother, Rennee, who loved her more fiercely than any storm imaginable — the kind of love so unwavering and in your face, it shook you to your core just to watch it. You could almost bask in a love like that from the sidelines. That is what I experienced between Sabrina and Rennee.

When your daughter is wrongfully accused of a terrible crime and then subsequently treated horribly by a system of sloppiness, you have plenty of opportunity to let your Mama Bear senses out at every turn. In Sabrina’s case, they mislabeled critical DNA evidence and kept pieces of her son’s body after his cremation to test for signs that the prosecution thought might help prove its case. It was brutal.

The worst part about this case wasn’t even the prosecutor who thought he’d beat a young kid (me) to win his next campaign (after the trial loss, he didn’t even run again). The worst part was when the Department of Family Services (DFS) — or, as I like to say “Disservices” — decided to keep Sabrina’s two other children from her for months after her trial acquittal.

In a rigged system, DFS required extensive evaluations. They always select from their usual contractors who are bought and paid for by state subsidies and federal Medicaid matching dollars. This system is so poorly run that in recent years a Wyoming Supreme Court advisory board to the Wyoming Legislative Joint Judiciary Committee warned that the state is at extreme risk for a lawsuit due to the system keeping children in custody for too long.

Also, the state has no incentive financially to move foster children out of custody quickly. There is no oversight of significance on DFS because records are confidential and not open to inspection, due to statutory requirements and rules under HIPAA (the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act). In Sabrina’s case, her mother Rennee fought those bureaucratic beasts like a rabid dog. DFS would not even allow her to raise her two other grandchildren in the wake of their foster care placement while Sabrina awaited trial. That fueled her anger more than anything.

They told Rennee she was “disabled due to her medical issues. It was a horrible lie, but they used it to play their games. She produced doctor’s notes, and we scheduled meetings. I went all the way to the interim director, yet nothing was done. They continued to keep custody of the children, kept the pay in their pockets and ignored our requests. The custody case for the other two children ended when a district court judge in Laramie County looked the DFS representative in the eye in a court proceeding on my motion to dismiss the case and declared, “enough is enough. This case has ended.”

You have to remember that this custody battle came several months after a jury found Sabrina not guilty of killing her 18-month-old son. After all the emotional trauma, grief and suffering of that trial, Rennee remained there poking and prodding DFS. She was the thorn in their side with her constant reality checks and criticisms to the disservices they were bestowing on families like her own.

The custody battle to get the other two children back was traumatizing and frustrating for all of us until the judge intervened and gave the children back to Sabrina. Even then, bitter resentment built in the wake of the injustice we’d experienced for months.

Months prior, shortly before trial, Sabrina got married. There was so much on the line. Sabrina was looking at life in prison with the possibility of no parole for first-degree felony murder by way of child abuse. They had no physical evidence, but experts paid hundreds an hour. I was young and stupid to take the case as an inexperienced defense attorney, but after we prevailed, I knew I had done the best I could do for her. And her family.

Rennee fought health issues for a while as we battled DFS. She had brain surgery and many problems stemming from it. But she was as smart as a tack and the only person ornerier about the system than I. Throughout that case, one case worker retired due to frustration with that system. I hope that some of those meetings with DFS during the struggle result in policy changes that are lasting for a state entity that should be doing better than harm.

People never talk about the families of criminal defendants. Specifically, what their life looks like post-acquittal. To Rennee, thank you so much for the gift you gave me of knowing you. Most importantly, thank you for believing in your daughter and her constitutional right to a fair and full trial. In the end, it paid off. But it took a team and your belief and everlasting support for her.

Unfortunately, some never have this kind of family and fall prey to an unfair and unbalanced system where the deck is often stacked or played unfairly. We must constantly be watchful and zealous to step in and help however and wherever we can. For my part, I became a criminal defense attorney. Now it is time to take the law and evolve it into something where the lives of children aren’t hanging in the balance of a bureaucratic vacuum.

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