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Kirstin Blaise Lobato spent nearly 16 years in prison for a crime she didn't commit.
Lobato was convicted of murder in 2001 at age 18 and sentenced to prison for 45 to 100 years. It wasn't until the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to helping those who have been wrongly convicted, took interest in her case that Lobato was found innocent and released from prison nearly 16 years after her original conviction.
Now, at age 36, she is trying to rebuild her life.
In May 2001, Lobato was in Las Vegas visiting friends when she was attacked in a Budget Suites parking lot. She defended herself using a knife to slash the attacker's lower area, and later told friends and family about the incident
On July 8, 2001, police found the dead body of a man named Duran Bailey in a bank parking lot in Las Vegas. Bailey's body was bruised and beaten and his penis was mutilated. Twelve days later, police received a call regarding Lobato's story. The Las Vegas police arrived at her home three hours away in Panaca, Nevada. She said they told her they heard she had been attacked in Las Vegas.
"I just broke down because my assumption was they're homicide detectives, that guy must've died. I had no reason to think that they were talking about something completely separate," said Lobato. "I didn't find out until days later that they were charging me with something that I had nothing to do with."
The investigation's medical examiner said that Bailey died at around 4 a.m. that July morning and Lobato's witnesses did not have a record of her whereabouts at that time. She was found guilty in Bailey's murder in 2002.
"When I found out I was going to jail, I trusted in the system. I figured everything would be okay as long as I told them the truth," said Lobato to TODAY. "I had no idea how wrong I'd be."
In 2004, the Nevada Supreme Court overturned Lobato's verdict due to the defense attorney's failure to cross-examine a prosecution witness. She was tried again in 2006 for manslaughter, mutilation and weapons charges. Lobato was found guilty once again.
Then in 2016, the state's Supreme Court requested a new hearing — and the Innocence Project stepped in. They enlisted forensic entomologists who concluded that based on the time of death the medical examiner said, Bailey's body should have been covered in blowfly eggs. Blowflies arrive on a body around 24 hours after death and lay visible yellow or white eggs. However, there were none in this case and the entomologists concluded Bailey died 10 p.m. on July 8 when Lobato's witnesses said she was in Panaca, explains the Innocence Project's website. Based on this evidence, all charges against Lobato related to the case were dropped. She was exonerated on Dec. 29, 2017 and released on Jan. 3, 2018.
"I knew either way I was going to be free. But there's a big difference between all charges dismissed and all that stuff on your record, so I can't even describe the feeling that I have inside knowing that my name is finally cleared," said Lobato who would have been up for parole in May had she not been found innocent.
"I waited a long time for this."
Life as an exonerate
Lobato is now focused on rebuilding her life in Las Vegas. She currently lives with Michelle Ravell, the mother of her boyfriend at the time she was first wrongly convicted, whom she now also calls "mom." Ravell stuck by Lobato's side over the past 17 years in order to help get her exonerated.
"I was compelled to help her because I put myself in her place. I thought to myself, 'If this were happening to me, what would I want the people around me to do for me?'" Ravell told TODAY. "If I didn't do something to help her, I would never be able to live with myself."
As part of Lobato rebuilding her life, the Innocence Project teamed up with Glam4Good, an organization dedicated to helping deserving people feel their very best through style and beauty, to complete her wardrobe as she tries to re-enter the work force.
Lobato came to New York City for the Innocence Project's annual gala on May 8, 2018, when Glam4Good pampered Lobato with a head-to-toe makeover that included a haircut, makeup and a shopping spree in order to instill confidence in her for the event and beyond.
"Glam4Good, at its core, is about empowering dignity," said the foundation's CEO Mary Alice Stephenson. "t's not a makeover. It's way beyond that. This is giving [Lobato] the tools she needs and wants to support how she wants to appear to the world."
"I'm doing the best I can"
After becoming overwhelmed with the idea of attending the gala, Lobato decided not to go minutes before she was supposed to be presented at the event.
"In some ways, it is like I've only been free for five minutes. I'm still learning how to function in the world as an adult with technology, with this, that and the other thing. I don't know how to navigate life at all," said Lobato tearfully about not attending the event. "I am doing the best that I can and sometimes I just can't do it and this was one of those times."
"Blaise is so strong and in many ways hit the ground running after her exoneration that it’s easy to look at the woman before us and forget all that she endured. We can’t see it on the outside, but there are psychological scars that run deep,” wrote Vanessa Potkin, director of post-conviction litigation at The Innocence Project, in an email to TODAY. “She lived in an environment where expressing emotion is a sign of weakness that could put your life in danger."
"So it makes sense that this would be overwhelming to Blaise just months after her release, especially considering the magnitude of the moment," continued Potkin.
After all of that she been through over the last 17 years, Lobato is hopeful for the future.
"I have a message for anyone who's going through a similar situation that what I went through. Be strong, believe in yourself and never give up. There are gonna be days when you're gonna feel like you cannot make it another step. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other because eventually your day will come," she said.
Special thanks to the Sheraton Times Square, Alberstons, Serge Normant at John Frieda salon, City Point, Las Vegas Review Journal, Caroline Buckler, Liana Zingaro, Charlotte Courtiss, Sarah Lucero, Charlie Riddle, Raina Blyler, Sioux Nesi, Boktier, Kendra Scott and VSP.