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Wrongly convicted of killing a toddler, she spent 18 years in prison. Now she's fighting for a kidney.

Rosa Jiménez was exonerated in the death of a 21-month-old who under her care ingested a mass of paper towels, resulting in injuries that led to the baby’s death.

Rosa Jiménez’s tiredness can be seen in her eyes, in the pauses she makes when speaking, and in the way she sometimes moves her shoulders as if carrying an enormous weight. The 41-year-old exonerated inmate, now afflicted by severe kidney disease, says her greatest wish is to have a normal life. But it's not easy.

“With each treatment I end up really tired and I don’t have the strength. Every time I go to dialysis I come home to sleep and I don’t have a different life,” Jiménez said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo.

Jiménez’s desire to have a normal life is not only related to the dialysis treatment she must undergo several times a week, it also refers to her troubled past: In 2003 she was sentenced to 99 years in prison after she was convicted for the death of Bryan Gutiérrez, who was 21 months old.

Rosa Jiménez was released from prison nearly two decades after her conviction.
Rosa Jiménez was released from prison nearly two decades after her conviction.Albinson Linares

The toddler choked on paper towels and suffered a severe brain injury due to lack of oxygen, resulting in his death three months later. Although Jimenez maintained her innocence and told police that she tried to get the boy to expel the paper towels, they did not believe her.

“My lawyers from the beginning began to fight for my innocence, but it took 18 years to clarify everything what had happened," she said.

At the trial, the state had presented experts that said that the toddler couldn't have put paper towels in his mouth on his own.

It was later determined that the medical evidence presented was false.

“We presented the medical evidence [of the case] to the country’s leading pediatric otolaryngologists, who independently reviewed it and all concluded that it was a tragic accident and that no murder had occurred. Basically, Rosa spent almost two decades in prison due to false medical evidence that was presented at his trial,” Vanessa Potkin, an attorney with the Innocence Project who represented Jiménez, told Noticias Telemundo.

Jiménez was released in 2021 and, almost two decades after she was convicted, in August 2023, the Travis County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the charges against her and exonerated her, with District Attorney José Garza stating that “it is clear that false medical testimony was used to obtain her conviction ... In this case, our criminal justice system failed. It also failed Rosa Jimenez.”

With a broken voice, Jimenez told Noticias Telemundo, "When they arrested me, I really had faith that they were going to let me out. In my mind I said that when I go to trial, everything will be fixed and they will know that I am innocent, but unfortunately that was not the case."

Jiménez added her daughter Brenda was only 1 year old when she was arrested and she was pregnant with her son Aiden, who was born while she was in prison.

"There are no words to explain the pain that is felt — they take everything you have, your children, your life, your freedom,” Jiménez said.

'My body has deteriorated, little by little'

While incarcerated, Jiménez was diagnosed with kidney disease that kept progressing. She began undergoing dialysis after her release in 2021, and now needs a kidney transplant

“I would like to have a normal life like everyone else and not be dependent on going to dialysis. My body has deteriorated, little by little,” Jiménez said sadly.

Jiménez remembers that it all started with pain in her hips. In prison she was assigned to work in the fields, where she collected crops such as onions and potatoes. She complained of pain and was given naproxen and ibuprofen, which she said she took for years before going to work in the mornings and before going to sleep.

“I took them without knowing the consequences that those pills were going to bring me later in my life. When I was in prison they did some blood tests and realized that my kidneys were not working well. And little by little they began to decline,” she said.

The naproxen and ibuprofen that Jimenez claims she was prescribed for years are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and organizations like the National Kidney Foundation warn that “excessive or prolonged use of some of these medications [ ...] can cause chronic kidney disease.”

“According to the doctors who have reviewed Rosa’s case and who have evaluated her for a kidney transplant, there are indications that she developed kidney disease as a result of the medications she was given in prison,” Potkin, her attorney, said.

Matthew Murphy, assistant professor of Medicine at Brown University and a physician at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, said that "there is a great lack and lack of information about the state of kidney disease management in prison, not only in the United States, but also worldwide. But the little we know is that many people who are incarcerated for a number of different reasons tend to suffer from kidney diseases."

Given the absence of data on the prevalence on kidney disease in U.S. prisons, Murphy decided to investigate the topic together with other colleagues and, in November 2021, they published the study titled "Kidney Disease among People Who Are Incarcerated."

In one of the conclusions of the study, the researchers warn that it's possible that the millions of people who every year enter the American criminal justice system may not be getting easy access to important basic health care services, such as laboratory analyses to measure levels of creatinine and blood glucose. And they note that without basic health screening capabilities, it's impossible to identify kidney conditions or their risk factors.

Although Murphy hasn't analyzed Jiménez’s clinical diagnosis, the researcher explains that during his career he has come across many cases in which incarcerated people don't have access to adequate medical care in the prison system.

'Something more for me'

Meanwhile, Jiménez counts the days to find a donor and recover the almost two decades she spent in detention.

Born in 1982 in the Mexican city of Ecatepec de Morelos, Jiménez crossed north in search of a better life when she was 17, leaving behind the humble home where she lived with her five siblings and her mother, who tried to support them with the meager sales from a tamale cart.

Jiménez currently lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is married to Mary Jane, a Toyota assembly plant employee who Jiménez said pushes her to meet her goals every day.

“I found this person who, thank God, helps me, supports me. When I can’t get ahead, she lifts me up, encourages me and tells me that this is not the end, that there is something more for me, because God did not take me out of prison to end like this,” Jiménez said with emotion.

Suddenly, her face darkened because she remembered her incarceration. “Being a lesbian in prison was difficult. There was discrimination, especially with the guards who judge you and tell you things that are not right,” she says.

Jiménez proudly says that, in addition to her children and grandchildren, she is now also a “dog mom” to two chihuahuas named Tutsi and Tequila. One of her dreams is to move to a place with a large piece of land to be able to rescue animals and give them a better life.

“What I long for, what I really would like to do, is rescue dogs that are suffering and help them. Give them love. Maybe I distinguish myself with little animals, maybe I can give them a chance just like I had a new chance,” she said.

A previous version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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