A new group is asking Governor Jay Nixon to grant clemency to 14 women in state prison. It says most of them were victims of domestic violence that contributed to their crimes and all have received disproportionate sentences, in some cases far harsher than those given to men convicted of the same crimes.
The Community Coalition for Clemency says it is not unusual for women to receive disproportionate sentences for their crimes compared to men. It argues that most of these 14 women were not directly involved in the crimes for which they are in prison, and says others participated under duress and after being abused for years. Some of those 14 women have spent more than 30 years in prison and four are over the age of 65 and serving life terms.
The group’s membership includes former governor Bob Holden, former state legislators, law professors, attorneys, law students, community leaders and advocates, as well as the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Professor John Ammann supervises the legal clinic at St. Louis University’s law school. He says the Coalition believes these women pose no threat to public safety if released.
“None of them had convictions or criminal records for violent offences before going into prison on these offenses,” says Ammann. “The second thing is, we think the state of Missouri has done a fairly good job on rehabilitation. All of our women have been through dozens of programs and classes.”
He says one example of a case in which a man received a much lighter sentence for a crime similar to those of several of these women developed late last year.
“A guy from Imperial, Missouri … his attorney was a former judge and a former prosecutor, got him a great deal, so he kills his estranged wife and he gets 16 years in prison,” says Ammann. “Any of our women would say, ‘Give me that deal.’ Any of our women would say, ’16 years? I probably deserve that but I don’t deserve 35 or 40 or the rest of my life.”
Amy Lorenz-Moser represents one of the women, Donna Biernacki, who admitted to shooting her husband in the head in 2004 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder. A psychologist testified during her trial that she was suffering the effects of spousal abuse during her 12-year marriage.
Lorenz-Moser says her client and her 13 fellows have compelling stories about experiencing domestic violence and how it impacted their lives and their cases.
“My lady, specifically, killed her abuser in an act of self-defense,” says Lorenz-Moser.
The Coalition believes if these women were facing sentencing today for the same crimes, they would likely receive much lighter sentences.
“There are a lot of women in the group that were sentenced at a time when life sentences were sort of being handed out pretty frequently,” says Lorenz-Moser. “Today they’re handed out more judiciously.”
Ammann notes that Missouri statute has changed from a life sentence being 50 years, when many of these women were sentenced, to being 30 years now.
“You know I think judges and prosecutors are just more enlightened these days about domestic violence and it’s factored in,” says Ammann. “Some of our women, I think, would have gotten probation if they were convicted today,” says Ammann.
Some of these women have had clemency requests awaiting action for years. Lorenz-Moser says the Coalition hopes it can spur action on those requests, and it is asking for people to sign its online petition requesting clemency for these 14 women.
“I think that the governor will respond to the community if they show that there is support for the release of these women,” says Lorenz-Moser. “I definitely think that there is hope for clemency.”
Nixon has granted clemency only once during his six years in office. In 2011 he commuted the sentence of Richard Clay from death to life in prison. Nixon has never officially stated his reason for the action.
Nixon spokesman Scott Holste says the governor’s office does not comment on pending applications for clemency.
The 14 women are Biernacki, Amelia Bird, Amanda Busse, Rena Green, Tequila Harmon, Judy Henderson, Kim Hennessey, Margaret Hodges, Verdia Miller, Connie Pair, Vera Palmer, Mary Pickard, Patricia “Patty” Prewitt and Angel Stewart.