Imagine enduring 25 years of being told that when you were two, you caused the death of your four-month-old brother. Conversely, imagine being the sort of person low enough to frame a toddler for murder. In 1971, a tragedy and its prolonged aftermath would go on to shape more than one life.
Tracy Rhame grew up hearing the story of how she’d killed her infant half-brother, Matthew Golder, by tossing him out of his crib. It was ruled an accident, and Rhame was too young to remember the event at the time. But as she grew older, she was haunted by the knowledge that she wasn’t capable of committing the horrible act she’d been accused of.
As People reports, it was a terrible burden to bear:
Her parents had told her that 4-month-old Matthew had crawled from his crib in their Chamblee, Ga., apartment and fallen to the floor. When she pressed for details as a child, Rhame, now 27, recalls her mother blurting, “You really don’t want to know. His head looked like someone put their fist through a watermelon.” It was an image Rhame couldn’t forget. “I knew in my gut that Matt didn’t just fall,” she says. But she wasn’t prepared for her maternal grandmother Anne Davidson’s revelation in 1992. “You did it,” Davidson told her. “You were playing in the crib, and he fell out. It was an accident. We’ve always known that.”
After a rough childhood, she graduated high school, joined the Army, and gained self-confidence that was bolstered even further when she met her future husband. He happened to have an uncle in the FBI who offered her guidance in her fight to clear her name, and her persistence paid off. In 1997, after back-and-forth with Tracy and Matthew’s mother, Matthew’s body was exhumed for forensic study.
With a new autopsy, the truth was finally revealed: her short-tempered stepfather, Jan Barry Sandlin, had killed the baby with blows to the head, and then plopped Tracy into his crib after the fact to make it look like she’d done it.
The prosecutor who took on Sandlin recalled of Tracy:
“All her life she was told she was responsible for her brother’s death. When she asked questions, she didn’t get a lot of details. Tracy just wasn’t comfortable with that. This really is a lifelong quest for her.’’
Sandlin, who was easy to track down (he was doing time for armed robbery in Florida), denied any involvement in Matthew’s death. But the evidence against him was strong, and he was convicted of the decades-old crime. Two life sentences were added to the life sentence he was already serving. And Tracy, age 27 and the mother of two young children herself, was finally vindicated after a life spent wrongfully accused.
Top image: Matthew Golder’s body being exhumed on March 17,1997. Credit: AP/The Cullman Times/David Poynor