Bernina Mata's supporters say she was given the death sentence for a 1998 killing because she is lesbian. Credit: Daniel Fishel

Bernina Mata doesn’t deny killing John Draheim in 1998.

“I wake up every day and wish that I could go back and change what happened,” Mata wrote in a letter attached to her recently filed clemency petition that seeks her freedom after more than two decades behind bars. 

“Not because I was caught or because I’ve spent the last 23 years of my life incarcerated. But because a man’s life should have been spared, different actions should have been taken.” 

Mata has spent nearly half her life in prison for stabbing John Draheim to death in 1998. She will turn 52 this month, and most likely spend her birthday at Logan Correctional Center, a half-hour’s drive north of Springfield. 

When she was 29, Mata was convicted of first-degree murder in Boone County, and sentenced to death in 1999 — a fate only altered in 2003 when former governor George Ryan commuted all death sentences in the state to life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

Her attorneys say that if not for the death sentence, she would have already been released from prison. 

Last week, state legislators rejected two of Governor J.B. Pritzker’s nominees to the Prisoner Review Board, which hears clemency petitions like Mata’s. As a result, the board suspended hearings in April, leaving her bid for freedom up in the air.

“We’re not trying to say that somehow she’s innocent of this or that, that she shouldn’t be held accountable,” says Mata’s longtime attorney, Joey Mogul. “But the question is, like, why the death sentence? One reading of this, you could say, look, this may not have been a justifiable homicide, per se, but is it a capital murder? No, it’s not.”

Mogul, a partner at the People’s Law Office, first started representing Mata after her conviction.

Prosecutors convinced a jury that Mata, who is lesbian, killed Draheim after she became enraged when he flirted with her. But her attorneys say Draheim was drunk, that she believed he was trying to rape her, and that she was suffering from severe mental illness at the time—most notably a flashback to sexual abuse she endured as a small child.

At her trial, prosecutors alleged Mata was a coldhearted, man-hating, sexually promiscuous woman, a heavy drinker, and had no remorse for the fact that Draheim’s five children were now fatherless. 

But a Reader analysis of thousands of pages of court transcripts, mental health records, psychological evaluations, and law enforcement reports paints an entirely different picture. 

Those records describe a woman who survived a childhood of traumatic rape and physical and emotional abuse, and who has long maintained that she was acting in self-defense.

The crux of Mata’s clemency petition, are the inflammatory, homophobic statements made at trial by the then-assistant state’s attorney for Boone County, Troy Owens. 

“We are trying to show that she has a motive to commit this crime in that she is a hard-core lesbian, and that that is why she reacted to Mr. Draheim’s behavior in this way,” Owens told the court in one instance.

Mata’s attorneys, Mogul and Rachel White-Domain, who is the director of the Women & Survivors Project at the Illinois Prison Project, say the fact that Mata is a lesbian was central to the prosecution’s arguments that secured Mata’s death sentence.

At trial, prosecutors referenced Mata’s sexuality 17 times, according to her attorneys. “A normal heterosexual person would not be so offended by [Draheim’s flirting] as to murder,” Owens told the court in a statement highlighted by Mata’s attorneys. 

Trial transcripts show Troy Owens, who prosecuted Mata, made her sexuality a key issue in the case against her.

The clemency petition is Mata’s last hope for freedom. 

She appealed her death sentence to the Illinois Supreme Court, but after Governor Ryan commuted her sentence in 2003, her case was sent to the state appeals court. Mata withdrew the bulk of her appeal out of fear that even with a new trial, she could be found guilty and sentenced to death again. Following a legal dispute over whether she could appeal her sentence after Ryan commuted it, the state appeals court found that the jury properly found beyond a reasonable doubt that Mata killed Draheim as part of a “cold, calculated, and premeditated manner.” 

Her supporters say the petition is also the state’s chance to right an egregious wrong perpetrated against the LGBTQ+ community. 

“I think it’s really tragic and is just shocking that the state couldn’t take into consideration all of these mitigating circumstances, including her childhood, including her severe rape and sexual assault and abandonment, and say that these were contributing factors to what happened that night,” Mogul says. “But instead, they seize on this vile, homophobic, sexist argument that her lesbianism caused her to kill.”

A constant in Mata’s life has always been her love of animals. As a young girl, she would rescue small animals and care for them in the backyard of her grandparents’ home, where she lived. It’s a love that persists even behind bars. When I asked her in a letter what made her happy, animals were at the top of the list. 

Mata’s clemency petition states that despite the chaos that later punctuated her early life, her grandparents’ home in Aurora, Illinois, where she spent her first few years, was a place of support and encouragement. 

When Mata was three, she moved back in with her mother and new stepfather, Saul. His sexual abuse of her in the ensuing years had irreparable, lifelong effects.

According to Mata’s clemency petition, Saul began sexually abusing her when she was just four years old. In 1974, weeks after her fourth birthday, Mata had to undergo surgery to repair lacerations she endured after her stepfather raped her, resulting in a three-day hospital stay. She was returned home under the condition her stepfather would not come near her, but Mata says the abuse continued until she was seven. 

According to a 1999 evaluation conducted by Frank Cushing, a licensed clinical psychologist, after Mata was arrested, she states that her stepfather threatened to “burn the house down” and harm other family members like her grandparents and brother if she ever said anything. 

Alongside the sexual abuse she endured, Mata also faced significant physical and emotional abuse by her mother and stepfather. Cushing noted in the report that Mata said they beat her multiple times a day, sometimes with a stick or belt, leaving her with dark bruises and bleeding welts. 

In one shocking incident, Barbara threw a pair of scissors at Mata so forcefully they stuck in her right shoulder. The injury required stitches and left a scar.

Around the age of seven, Mata’s father, Omar, returned to her life, and she began staying with him regularly. But those visits only brought more trauma. The clemency petition states that like Saul, Omar also sexually abused her. 

“Bernina really never had a chance,” another psychologist wrote about her in 1996, when Mata was 26 years old. “When sexual assaults begin this early the damage is extremely deep, and, since it was her father, precluding of much ability to develop trust or a healthy relationship with anyone.”

Mata says that after she came out as gay to her mother at age eight, the abuse took a homophobic turn, with her mother calling her a “little faggot” and other slurs. 

When she was seven, Mata began running away from home. The following year, she began abusing drugs and alcohol. Police would return her home when she ran away, despite authorities and her own mother knowing about the abuse.

“The people in her life, including her mom, who found out about it, and other authorities, who also found out about it, didn’t intervene to stop it from happening. And as a result of that, it happened repeatedly for years,” White-Domain says, adding that their inaction only exacerbated the trauma Mata was enduring. 

“That is something that actually makes something on a psychological and on a neurological level more traumatic than if we have an experience of trauma that then when it’s discovered, that community rallies around the victim and says, you know, what happened was wrong,” she says. 

Cushing’s evaluation says that years into the sexual abuse by her father, he began trafficking her to friends who liked “really young girls.” The petition states that her father would bring her over to friends’ homes with several other men and then leave for “errands.” Mata reported hiding to escape the men’s inappropriate touching, enduring her father’s anger for “disrespecting” his friends’ homes as a result. 

The clemency petition states that despite the abuse she endured, Mata was a smart, studious, and respectful student with a natural grasp of science. She also found time to be alone, reading books, listening to music, or watching cars pass. She was an avid roller skater, and would lose herself in her thoughts as she skated around her neighborhood. 

But socially, Mata struggled. The abuse she endured left her shy, reserved, and anxious in social settings, especially while dressing and showering in school locker rooms. 

As she grew older, the trauma she endured began to take an increasing psychological toll. Mata was first hospitalized in an inpatient setting for three weeks in June 1982 at a psychiatric facility in Aurora, Illinois, when she was 12 years old. The following May, the state’s Department of Children and Family Services took custody of her after she ran away and her mother would not accept her back. 

Mata was hospitalized at the psychiatric facility three more times before she was 15. She was an inpatient at Gateway Substance Abuse Treatment Center, for three months in the spring of 1985. The petition states that Bernina spent the bulk of June, July, and August back at the Aurora facility before her DCFS caseworker had her placed in a state psychiatric institute where she remained for the next two years until 1987. Mata says she spent the majority of that time in physical restraints. 

A September 1986 psychological evaluation by the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute described Mata, then 16, as a shy, anxious teenager with low self-esteem and an intellectual functioning level in the “low average” range. Similar comments about her intelligence would continue throughout her life, even coming up at trial.

Mata’s petition states that she left the state psychiatric institute when she was 17, and lived briefly in a group home. The following year, Mata moved in with an older woman she met at Gateway, Deborah McEachern, and began a romantic relationship.

That lasted seven years. According to the petition, the two argued often toward the end of their relationship, and after one such argument Mata left their house. When she later returned to get her belongings, she learned McEachern had taken out an order of protection against her, leading to Mata’s arrest. The breakup left Mata homeless and caused her to return to abusing drugs and alcohol. 

Mata briefly dated another woman in April 1996; that relationship ended when the woman beat Mata, leaving her with two black eyes and a broken nose. 

Mata overdosed on a combination of Vicodin, Valium, and alcohol and received emergency treatment at Victory Memorial Hospital in the aftermath of that incident, medical records from the time show. She was later transferred to Elgin Mental Health Center, where she met another romantic partner, a female technician at the facility who Mata says helped her sneakily leave the facility and gave her a place to stay. 

The petition states that Mata felt pressured to continue a relationship following the escape, and moved in with her until the technician moved out of state. 

Mata has been diagnosed with multiple mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and drug and alcohol dependency. Multiple evaluations mention a lack of self-esteem and feelings that she is “worthless.” She’s also reported to have visual and auditory hallucinations of her grandfather and her stepfather. The 1996 Elgin psychological assessment was perhaps the most honest about Mata’s circumstances.

Unlike most evaluations of Mata, the Elgin assessment also found her to be substantially smarter than others gave her credit for.

“She has a high school education; is street smart and wise far beyond her years,” the report states. “She is a quick learner, likable, and open to concern to a point. She puts up a false front of bravado, which overlies a very hurt and hurting young woman.”

After the Elgin staffer moved out of state, Mata needed a roommate to help cover the rent. The man who moved in, Russell Grundmeier, was her supervisor at a Sam’s Warehouse garage, where she worked doing tire rotation. 

The decision to welcome Grundmeier as a roommate would prove to have an immeasurable impact on Mata’s life. 

John Draheim was killed on June 27, 1998. That is indisputable. 

But it’s also one of the only clear-cut facts from that night. Detectives, prosecutors, and Grundmeier have one version of events: that Mata plotted to kill Draheim after he innocently flirted with her. Mata’s attorneys have long maintained that Draheim was aggressive and verbally abusive toward her at the bar, and that he had tried to rape her in her bedroom before she acted in self-defense. 

A glaring difference between the state’s version of events and Mata’s is the relationship between Mata and her roommate. Grundmeier told the court that he was in love with Mata, and moved in after they began a sexual relationship. Grundmeier testified that when he moved in with Mata, he had been separated from his wife for several months and was living with his parents. 

Mata vehemently denies they had a sexual relationship and says they were just work friends. Prosecutors and Mata’s own court-appointed defense attorney, Peggy Gerkin of Franks, Gerkin & McKenna (now Franks Gerkin Ponitz Greeley), seemed to believe Grundmeier’s explanation of their relationship over hers.

At the trial, Grundermeir testified that on June 27, 1998, he arrived at Sporty’s Bar & Grill in Belvidere to celebrate his birthday, and Mata was already sitting at the bar with Draheim. She looked to be having a good time, he testified. He and other witnesses say they saw her bouncing around the bar, flirting and being friendly with other patrons, something they said wasn’t out of the ordinary. 

But prosecutors say that good time soured after Draheim made a pass at Mata and put a hand on her shoulder. Mata’s mood allegedly shifted drastically, and she threatened to break Draheim’s neck if he touched her again.

Undeterred, Draheim allegedly made another pass, this time touching her thigh, prosecutors say. Grundmeier says it was at this point that she got up from the bar, walked over to him and pulled him aside, whispering in his ear the sentence that would form the basis for her death sentence. 

“I’m going to kill John and you’re going to help me,” he says she told him. Grundmeier says the comment rattled him, and he left the bar to return home, followed soon after by Mata, Draheim, and a neighbor named James Clark.

Mata’s various attorneys have pointed out that Grundmeier’s claim that she told him of her plans came less than two weeks before the start of her murder trial. They say the statement was motivated out of his fear that he, too, could be charged in Draheim’s death, a fact also noted by Circuit Court Judge Gerald F. Grubb at Grundmeier’s sentencing in December 1998.

Russell Grundmeier’s claim that Bernina Mata told him of her plan to kill Draheim was central to the state’s arguments in favor of a death sentence.

“He says everything that they want in the moment that they asked for it while he’s, while he’s progressively having the charges that he’s facing lessened,” White-Domain says.

At Grundmeier’s sentencing, Judge Grubb said the case was one “where I think it’s basically, the police must have believed your story. Why, I don’t know. The facts and circumstances are such that it might very well have been a murder charge.” Judge Grubb also presided over the state’s case against Mata.

After more drinking, Clark left, and Grundmeier says he left the apartment for a few minutes after becoming jealous over Mata’s overt flirting with Draheim. When he returned about five minutes later, he testified that he heard moaning coming from Mata’s room and entered to find what he says looked like consensual sex. 

Again fueled by jealousy, he says he pulled Draheim off Mata, and in the struggle lost his glasses. Without them, he says his vision was fuzzy, but he still managed to subdue Draheim. Without his glasses, Grundmeier says he only saw Mata’s shape and the glint of a knife, which she plunged into Draheim’s chest six or seven times. But after the first blow, he says he covered his face. 

That’s largely where his story converges with Mata’s. 

She agrees that Draheim propositioned her at the bar, but says she simply turned him down. But rather than the innocent suitor prosecutors made him out to be, Mata says Draheim called her a “dyke” and said she “just hadn’t been fucked by the right man yet.” She says his breath was heavy with the smell of liquor. 

Mata says she doesn’t remember much of the night—a combination of the large amounts of liquor they drank, the passage of time, and the fact that she was dissociating, or mentally disconnecting from the world around her, during much of the night’s events. White-Domain says that’s common for survivors of childhood sexual abuse and fits with Mata’s PTSD. The petition also states that Mata had stopped taking a trio of antipsychotic medications at the time, and was unmedicated at the time of the killing, the interrogations, and when she was secretly recorded in jail making allegedly inflammatory statements about Draheim’s death.

“It falls under the right criterion of avoidance symptoms,” White-Domain says. “Anybody can develop dissociation symptoms, but they’re most commonly associated with people who have experienced sexual abuse during childhood. So even her experience of what happened is in line with what we know about traumatic survival.”

But what Mata does remember differs greatly from the version of events the prosecution presented at trial.

She says Draheim likely drove her home after she started to walk—their apartment was a little less than a mile away from the bar. Mata also agrees that Clark, Grundmeier, Draheim and she continued drinking at the apartment and that her roommate left for a short period of time.

But while Grundmeier was gone, Mata says she found Draheim in her bedroom, naked, and wearing a condom. She says he grabbed her and said, “I want to fuck and you’re going to fuck me.”

The ensuing struggle, during which Mata says Draheim bit and hit her, is when Mata also says she saw her stepfather’s face on Draheim’s body, flashing back to the traumatic sexual abuse she endured as a child. It was then, she says, that she pulled Grundmeier’s butterfly knife from her back pocket and stabbed him. She says that’s when she blacked out.

Following Draheim’s death, Grundmeier was largely responsible for cleaning up the crime scene. One witness testified he saw Mata and Grundmeier carrying what looked like a rolled-up carpet, which was later discovered to be Draheim’s body wrapped in sheets, the morning after the killing. Grundmeier testified that he cleaned up Mata’s room, painted the walls, and dismantled and hid the bed. He was sentenced to four years in prison for felony concealment of a homicide, the only time he would serve for his role in Draheim’s death.

Grundmeier testified that the pair disposed of Draheim’s body in a creek off Moate Road in western Winnebago County. More than two weeks after the killing, police found the badly decomposed body. Police also recovered the murder weapon from a lake across from the home of Mata’s then-girlfriend, Cynthia Lloyd. 

After killing Draheim, Mata stayed with Lloyd at her stepmother’s home for nearly two weeks before returning to Belvidere. Lloyd and her mother both testified that Mata was in an emotional downward spiral from the day she arrived on June 28, 1998.

“She was crying, and all the time she was really jumping around, real jumpy,” Lloyd testified. “She just wasn’t the same.” Lloyd also testified that Mata continued to drink heavily, barely ate, and suffered from nightmares.

“She didn’t eat,” Lloyd testified. “She would wake up with nightmares, badly. They were very bad. You know, sweating. She drank a lot, a real lot. She was very edgy, very, very jumpy.”

Police arrested Mata on July 13, 1998, and charged her with first-degree murder. 

Prosecutors told the jury that Mata recanted her claim that Draheim had tried to rape her. And that’s true: Mata signed a statement recanting her rape allegations, but did so only after detectives told her they did not believe her story. Detectives themselves testified that they believed Grundmeier’s version of the events over Mata’s and told her just that.

“I told her Russell stated he observed consensual sex and that I thought she was lying about that to make a stand for herself in court for self-defense, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it,” Rocco Wagner, a detective with the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office, testified at trial.

Her attorneys say that was consequential, given Mata’s history as a survivor of sexual abuse that authorities did nothing to stop. 

“The fact that we would think that she would go forth from that moment and be either believed or be able to continue to clearly insist on her truth, despite the coercion of that environment, is just unrealistic to say the least,” White-Domain says. 

Owens, the state’s attorney, told the court that Mata’s efforts to conceal Draheim’s death proved that she was lying about the attempted rape, using it simply to avoid a guilty verdict. 

“It cannot be anything else because there was never rape,” Owens told the jury. “If one were raped, one would not actually take the efforts here to conceal the body,” Owens says at another point in the trial. 

Owens made numerous comments at trial undermining Mata’s allegations that Draheim had tried to rape her.

White-Domain says the comments by detectives and Owens himself are reflective of society’s and the justice’s systems viewpoints of sexual assault and abuse at the time.

“I think what was happening, and I’ve seen this in several cases, is that there was this idea that we should minimize how much we talk about past history of abuse, and we should minimize, specifically, particularly bad things [about] the person who was killed,” she says. 

At her trial Mata said that she asked for an attorney at least half a dozen times during her interrogation. She has maintained that ever since. She says the detectives screamed and threatened her to get her to confess, and that she gave in to end the ordeal. Mata says she was interrogated for roughly eight hours, but police say it was closer to five. 

Mata says detectives screamed and denied her an attorney in order to get a confession to Draheim’s killing.

Court records show that law enforcement never gave Mata access to an attorney during the interrogation; and she wouldn’t receive one until more than a week after she had been arrested, after she had signed three statements confessing to the killing and was secretly recorded speaking with two other women in Boone County Jail as part of the state’s investigation.

At trial, prosecutors played short clips from roughly six hours of taped conversations between Mata and the two other women. The tapes were difficult to understand, so prosecutors had a Belvidere Police Department detective testify as to what he remembered hearing in real time as the conversations were recorded.

According to Detective Daniel Smaha’s testimony, Mata made incriminating comments while in jail, including that the killing was indeed premeditated, that her alibi was airtight before Grundmeier confessed to police, and that the rush from killing was better than an orgasm.

But Mogul, Mata’s attorney, summarily rejected that.

“I don’t have any trust or faith in Smaha’s recollection of anything and I think he’s inherently biased,” Mogul says.

The women in the taped conversations, Henrietta Glover and Olicia Taylor, and a third woman, Angela Wright, also testified that they had unrecorded conversations with Mata where they said she confessed to killing Draheim because he flirted with her. 

Prosecutors used these statements to underscore Mata’s guilt throughout the trial.

The clemency petition states that Mata has no memory of making the statements, and her attorneys also note that at the time she was in the throes of a mental health crisis, was unmedicated, and was additionally frustrated with the attention she and her case were getting from other people in jail.

“Our understanding of what happened is that she was scared and frustrated, and also really horrified at how interested people seemed in [her case],” White-Domain says. 

Gerkin, Mata’s original attorney, moved in March 1999 to have her statements and taped conversations suppressed at trial over what he called an apparent violation of her constitutional rights, but Judge Grubb denied the motion.

Detectives testified that one reason they didn’t believe Mata’s claim that Draheim had tried to rape her was because she had injuries that reportedly matched leather wrist and ankle cuffs she was wearing when arrested. Detectives say Mata told them the marks were from “rough sex” with her girlfriend, Cynthia Lloyd.

Lloyd, however, testified that the cuffs were from Grundmeier and that she was not fond of them, and remembered asking Mata to remove them. As for the marks themselves, both Lloyd and her mother testified that Mata’s injuries were far more extensive than police described, including a one-inch scratch along her cheek, a bite mark to her arm, and dark bruises down her legs. 

Prosecutors also portrayed Draheim as an innocent suitor flirting with Mata, whose actions left five children without a loving, devoted father. 

“What could be more cold-blooded than to flirt with a man, to have drinks with that man, to make sexual advances toward that man, and then seconds later express your intention to kill that man later that night while that same man is sitting six feet away from you with his back turned toward you?” said Nicole Perry, an assistant state’s attorney at the time.

Judge Grubb refused to allow evidence related to a 1991 domestic violence incident where Draheim’s ex-wife called the police after Draheim had gotten drunk and began throwing things around the house. She reportedly told police at the time she was going to consult an attorney about a divorce and order of protection. But Judge Grubb did not admit evidence of the incident. 

But the judge did allow evidence from a May 1995 incident where Draheim’s ex-wife again called the police after he drunkenly slapped her in front of their five children. Police records of that incident state that she also told police that he had hit the children as well in the past. 

Mata’s attorneys says Draheim’s violence against his wife lends credibility to Mata’s rape allegations.

In 1997, Draheim’s wife obtained an order of protection for her and her children against him. 

Mata’s attorneys say these facts disprove the state’s depiction of Draheim as a harmless victim and instead lend credibility toward Mata’s claims of self defense. 

“We have order of protection documents that the person who was killed had a history of this exact type of violence, violence against other people, namely his wife, and it was not admitted,” White-Domain says. 

The jury found Mata guilty of first-degree murder in October 1999 and sentenced to death after more than ten hours of deliberation by the jury.

Mata’s attorneys and supporters are most ardently focusing on the inflammatory statements about Mata and her sexuality that they say are chiefly responsible for her conviction. Mata’s attorneys and legal scholars say that without prosecutors’ homophobic statements at trial, Mata wouldn’t have been sentenced to death. 

At trial, prosecutors characterized Mata as a “hard-core lesbian,” with “overt homosexuality,” who would flaunt it to anyone who would listen.

Ruthann Robson, a lesbian legal scholar at City University of New York, says these comments almost perfectly align with bigoted perceptions of lesbians as violent, cold-blooded man-haters. Robson made similar arguments in an affidavit she penned in support of Mata’s freedom in her original 2002 clemency petition, filed before Mata’s sentence was commuted to life in prison, and in a new affidavit in support of the latest petition.

“I don’t think a prosecutor today, and I don’t think a judge would allow that kind of statements by [Owens], the ‘hard-core lesbian’ [comment]” Robson says. “I don’t think that they would have allowed the introduction of the books today.”

At trial, prosecutors gave the jury the names of three books found on Mata’s bookshelf—The Lesbian Reader, Call Me Lesbian, and Homosexuality—to underscore her sexuality. Gerkin objected to the books’ introduction at trial, making similar arguments to what Mogul and Robson state in their own writing. 

“Mr. Owens is trying to make an argument that because she is a lesbian, that means that she is automatically going to be offended or hate men to the point that she is going to kill them,” Gerkin argued during the trial. “It is still an argument to show a propensity to commit a crime based on her sexual preference.”

Mata’s court-appointed attorney, Peggy Gerkin, also called out the state’s homophobic arguments at trial.

Robson reiterated her conclusion that “the prosecution’s case rested largely and almost exclusively on its stereotyped and prejudicial characterization of Ms. Mata as a lesbian,” in the latest affidavit, written in January.

She says the books are “really not very prejudicial” and, in the affidavit, wrote that “these books—which I have on my own shelves—do not support any construction of lesbian identity as man-hating murderers. Instead, they are affirmations of lesbian existence.” 

Robson and Mata’s attorneys also point to the results of a survey, published by the Chicago Sun-Times the same year as Mata’s arrest, which found that potential jurors were “more than three times as likely to think they could not be fair or impartial toward a gay or lesbian defendant” as toward defendants of other minorities. 

Mata’s case has been highlighted by social justice groups as an example of the way the criminal legal system is set up to punish minorities. As a queer woman of color in a social class deemed undesirable, Mata was a perfect example for the system to punish. In writing about her case, scholars are quick to point out that she isn’t the only one whose queerness has been weaponized to secure a death sentence.

The most infamous example of queerness, murder, and capital punishment is that of Aileen Wuornos, whose story was dramatized in the 2003 film Monster, starring Charlize Theron. Like Mata, Wuornos claimed her victims had tried to rape her, but was sentenced to death and executed by the state of Florida in 2002.

Prosecutors also seek the death penalty in cases between same-sex partners. Mogul wrote in a 2005 article in the City University of New York Law Review that such cases are more nuanced because prosecutors must still make a queer victim seem sympathetic to a jury. 

In 2001, a lesbian woman named Wanda Jean Allen was executed after spending 12 years on death row for killing her lover, Gloria Leathers, in a shooting outside an Oklahoma police station. At trial, prosecutors highlighted the masculine way Allen presented to paint her as a hot-blooded, violent aggressor, and even referred to her as the “man” in the relationship. As Mogul wrote, Allen testified that Leathers had slashed her in the face with a rake earlier that day, and that Leathers approached her with that same rake at the police station before Allen shot her.

The phenomenon of weaponizing homophobia to elicit a death sentence isn’t just isolated to lesbians. Homophobic stereotypes of gay men as sex-obsessed and overly promiscuous have similarly influenced juries. 

Perhaps the most widely known case is that of Charles Rhines, a gay man found guilty of killing a man during a doughnut store robbery in 1992. A jury sentenced Rhines to death in 1993 after jurors decided that a life sentence in prison surrounded by men would be less of a punishment and more of a sexual playground for a gay man. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up the issue of whether homophobia played a role in his sentence, and Rhines was executed by lethal injection in South Dakota in November 2019.

In an interview with the Reader, Owens denied his comments at trial were homophobic or racist. 

Those making such claims “are agenda driven,” Owens says. “The crime was particularly evil. The man she murdered was known to be a man who had five kids. He was known to be a wonderful father.”

“That’s a cold, cold, ice-cold heart murdering a man who just simply hit on her in a bar.”

He dismissed Mata’s rape allegations as “a complete lie” and says he has no problem with LGBTQ+ people. 

“I couldn’t care less how people love each other,” he says. “As long as kids, people with special needs, [or] animals aren’t involved, I couldn’t care less.”

Mata’s attorneys say her behavior while incarcerated has been a stark departure from that of the woman who was originally imprisoned. While in prison, Mata earned her GED and has held several prison jobs. The petition states Mata is also certified in pet grooming and computer technology, and as an Americans with Disabilities aide for others who are incarcerated.

In keeping with her love of animals, Mata also trained service dogs for people with disabilities as part of a prison program. In short, her attorneys say she’s a perfect candidate for clemency.

“I am 52 years old but I feel younger,” she wrote. “I have a lot more energy than most people my age. I had a rough childhood and I made a few mistakes along the way but in the meantime I’m trying to make the most out of my life.”

“One thing that people should know about me is that I am more understanding than I let on,” she wrote. “I have been through many things in life and can relate to many people.”

Kris Clutter, a paralegal at the People’s Law Office, says he’s known Mata for about eight years, mostly communicating by phone, email, and letters. Despite those limitations, they’ve grown close. He laughed when he remembered that Bernina would sometimes spend all the time on her allotted phone call talking to him, instead of Mogul. 

“For a while, I felt like she’d just wanna talk to me,” Clutter says, laughing.

Clutter says Mata was also patient and generous with her insight as an older queer woman, especially as one who has faced a significant amount of difficulty in her life.

“She has this wonderful queer sensibility, it’s just easy to talk to her,” Clutter says. 

In letters of support for clemency, fellow incarcerated people describe Mata as a caring, thoughtful, empathetic woman who goes out of her way to care for others. They say she’s a diligent worker, a trusted friend, and unlike many others who have been incarcerated for long periods of time. Social justice organizations and activists such as Equality Illinois, Love & Protect, and queer-focused prison abolition group Black & Pink National also wrote in support of Mata. Many promised everything from job-placement assistance to fundraising to help navigating a world very different from the one she left in 1999. 

Mata says she is hopeful but nervous for what could await her beyond the walls of Logan Correctional Center. 

“I am very scared,” she wrote. “I could get out any day to go back to a world that after 23 years I know absolutely nothing about.” 

“I feel good about my clemency,” she wrote. “I’ve got my awesome team, and they work so hard. I owe them all so much.”

But with the state senate rejecting the governor’s appointments to the Prisoner Review Board last week, Mata’s clemency petition—and her freedom—are now in limbo.

“As we predicted, recent attacks on the Prisoner Review Board left the body short-staffed and without the capacity to carry out April’s quarterly clemency hearings,” White-Domain says. “This is the result of failed tough-on-crime rhetoric meant merely to incite fear and score cheap political points.”

“While we’re disappointed justice will be delayed for Bernina Mata and for many other people in prison awaiting the chance to be reunited with loved ones, we will not be deterred. We will continue to zealously advocate for Bernina’s freedom.”

Adam M. Rhodes

Adam M. Rhodes is a queer, nonbinary, first-generation Cuban American journalist. Rhodes is currently a social justice reporter at the Chicago Reader, where their work centers primarily on queer people and people of color. Their recent work has examined HIV treatment access in Puerto Rico, racism in Chicago’s principal queer neighborhood, and, most recently, HIV criminalization in Illinois. Alongside the Reader, Rhodes has been published in outlets including BuzzFeed News and The Washington Post. You can follow them on Twitter at @byadamrhodes.