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Released from prison, an exonerated Jennifer Marchant wants 'to move on'

The most riveting moments in Jennifer Marchant's life are the ones she wants to move on from.

The fight in which she fatally stabbed her boyfriend.

The guilty verdict that left her in shock.

The day she went to prison.

The day when she could begin to move on from those moments happened when her father visited her in late July at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where he told her an appellate court had overturned her manslaughter conviction. And the appellate court did so in a way that kept the Niagara County District attorney from taking her to trial again.

Freed after more than three years in state prison, the 28-year-old wants to start a new life for herself.

Manslaughter conviction of former porn performer tossed out

That means completing her education and finding a new path.

Her immediate challenges include getting health insurance, buying new clothes, and finding a decent pair of eyeglasses to replace the prison-issue pair she brought home.

She also has to grapple with bureaucracy, making sure public records are updated to reflect that she's no longer a convicted felon, so she can vote, apply for jobs and perhaps obtain a passport.

"I want to live as a regular civilian, which I should be allowed to," Marchant said in an interview with The Buffalo News.

"It's time to move on," she said of the fatal encounter, trial and prison time. "This isn't my whole life. It's just something that happened in it. It's just time to move on."

The fatal encounter

Marchant met Ralph D. Stone Jr. when she was 16, and they started dating six years later in August 2011 when Marchant's stepmother died.

"It was a really bad, dark point in my life, and Ralph was there for me for that," Marchant said.

Marchant was working at a North Tonawanda collection agency, hoping to settle down and put behind her a pair of alcohol-related driving convictions and a stint as a performer in pornographic videos.

Did she love Stone?

"Of course," she replied.

There had been talk of marriage. But the relationship was starting to crumble. Stone, 24, was unemployed, drinking more than ever, and sometimes he assaulted her, she said.

What started the final argument on the February 2013 night?

"Ralph was under the impression that I was cheating on him," Marchant said.

During the night, Ralph overheard something she said to a friend and misinterpreted it. She denied, then and now, that she cheated on him.

Marchant went to a bedroom to lie down. But then Stone broke open the door and jumped on her, she said.

Jennifer Marchant, during a recent interview at her father's home in Orchard Park, said, "I want to live as a regular civilian, which I should be allowed to." (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"I basically had rolled out from under him and went to a separate bedroom. He broke open that door, and then I ran out. It was a latch lock. He actually bent it," Marchant said.

She said Stone tried to bear-hug her and grab her hair.

She escaped to the bathroom. Marchant, who weighed 240 pounds at the time, used her body to keep the 220-pound Stone from getting through.

"When I came out of the bathroom the first time, that's when I had grabbed the knife and I told him to back away," she said. "That's when I locked myself in the bathroom again. That's when he proceeded to break down the door."

She said she wanted the knife "to protect myself if need be. I was hoping it wouldn't come to that point, but Ralph was pretty irate."

Once Stone forced his way in, he grabbed her by the hair and said, "Stab me. Be the boss. Stab me," according to a video of Marchant's interview with police.

"I was convinced he would choke me to death. Ralph had choked me quite a few times previously," Marchant said.

"I was scared because of his level of intoxication. I didn't think he was capable of letting go. Ralph yanking my hair was a clear indicator to me he wanted to get me on the floor. He kept trying to yank me to make me lose my balance. From previous incidents, that's how I knew what he was trying to do."

She told police that she "just stuck him" in the chest with the knife. A police officer – sent to the apartment after Stone called 911 and then hung up – said Stone lunged at him.

Stone was "falling to his death," as Stone's mother later put it.

The officer took Stone to the floor, and then noticed he was bleeding heavily from a chest wound. He died in moments.

Marchant's trial

Marchant did not testify at her Niagara County Court trial in January 2014, even though her attorney, Dominic Saraceno, suggested she do so.

"I was scared to testify," she said. "That's a big job, to sit in a courtroom and answer questions about the scariest night of your life."

Marchant's side of the story came primarily from the lengthy videotape of her questioning by North Tonawanda detectives.

The prosecutors, Lisa M. Baehre and Doreen M. Hoffmann, portrayed Marchant as the aggressor. She was the only one armed in the struggle. Then County Judge Sara Sheldon instructed the jury on New York's complex self-defense law.

The law allows the use of deadly physical force in self-defense only if the person reasonably believes the other person is about to use such force, and only if escape isn't possible. Otherwise, the law says a person has a duty to retreat.

With Stone unarmed, the prosecutors contended the self-defense law didn't apply to Marchant.

Saraceno called the law unfair to most women facing domestic violence.

"This law is not written for a 220-pound man with lots of fighting experience, going up against a woman," Saraceno said then.

After 90 minutes of deliberation, the jury of 10 men and two women convicted Marchant of manslaughter.

"I was mostly in shock," Marchant recalled of hearing the verdict. "I was upset, I was sad, but I was just in shock. I couldn't believe it. I felt that all the evidence in the trial showed I was in danger, not just the video confession."

At sentencing two months later, Sheldon was required to give Marchant at least five years in prison. The judge chose 12 years.

Judge reluctantly gives Marchant 12 years in prison for killing boyfriend

Free at last

On July 27, Edwin Marchant was planning a visit to his daughter at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security women's prison in Westchester County.

On that day, the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court in Rochester decided on Marchant's appeal.

By a vote of 3-2, the court ruled the jury was wrong in rejecting Marchant's self-defense claim. The court majority ruled that verdict was "against the weight of the evidence," a powerful legal phrase that not only overturned her conviction, but it prevented a new trial and stopped the District Attorney's Office from being able to appeal the ruling further.

Edwin Marchant saw his daughter the next morning.

"He said, 'You should sit down. I have something to tell you.' I immediately got scared, because I thought there was a death in the family," Jennifer Marchant said. "I thought somebody got hurt. I didn't know. So I sat down, and he said, 'Jennifer, you won.' And I said, 'Won what?' He said, 'Your appeal. You won. You're coming home. I'm trying to get you out of here now.'

"I was like, 'You're lying.' I didn't believe it."

Marchant said she had spent long hours in the prison's law library, working on a 45-page brief that she sent to the court. She offered several arguments, but the appellate court ruled only on the self-defense issue.

"I always felt that at minimum I was at least going to make it back to trial," she said. "I'm not lucky. I'm fortunate."

Her brief was supported by one from attorney Edward P. Perlman of the Niagara County Conflict Defender's Office. Marchant said she never talked to Perlman until the morning of her final court appearance before her release.

The appellate decision was not unanimous. The majority prevailed by one vote. She doesn't dwell on how close she was to remaining in prison.

"The margin doesn't matter to me. I believe that regardless, the proper decision was made," Marchant said.

The next act

Marchant is trying to re-establish her life.

Marchant completed 40 credits of college course work in prison. The subject was sociology, a field in which she has no interest.

"What's offered is what's offered. You take advantage of your opportunity," she said.

She plans to go back to college in January to complete an associate degree. After that, she can pursue something that interests her more.

"I was considering law, but I think an MBA would be a better move for me," she said. "I'm no attorney. I would need funding for this, but I do want to start some advocacy for women specifically in prison who have public defenders as counsel, because public defenders do not help you. If I hadn't done this myself, I would still be sitting there."

Some wish she still was sitting in prison.

Michelle Stone has not wavered from her opinion that Marchant murdered her son.

She came to Marchant's final court appearance last month in Lockport and told reporters afterward, "She got away with murder."

And even as Marchant tries to move forward, she can't help but remember the past.

Recently, she was going through old belongings that her mother boxed up after her conviction.

"I've been going through my things, and there goes a Ralph T-shirt," Marchant said. "She didn't know it was Ralph's T-shirt , but I knew it was. That had struck a chord with me. Just simple things like that.

"I do think about Ralph. I wouldn't say often, but I do," Marchant said. "The memories come back of him."

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