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Coalition Calls On Nixon To Ease Sentences Of Abuse Victims

(via Flickr/s_falkow)

Updated at 4:35 p.m. with comment from Governor Jay Nixon.

A alliance of legal and political figures has launched an effort to get clemency for 14 women incarcerated in Missouri. 

The women are in prison for violent crimes, including murder. But coalition members said many were battered women who killed their abusers and others did not directly harm anyone by committing their crimes. All were victims of abuse starting at a young age and some had addiction problems.

The coalition said the women's sentences are disproportionately harsh and is asking Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to commute their sentences to time served.

"We believe that it's time Missouri starts acting like it understands domestic violence," said John Ammann, a Saint Louis University law professor who is representing eight of the women. "We have to understand that the forgotten victims of domestic violence are the women who are in prison."

Judge James Dowd, who retired from the state Court of Appeals, said the women were also victims of a statewide trend toward mass incarceration.

"We ask, on behalf of all of these women, that the governor use this power of pardon and commutation to do justice for a system that is literally running out of control," Dowd said. He said Missouri's prison population during his 30 years on the bench increased more than sixfold.

The Women

  • 11 of the 14 women are white. Three are black.
  • 11 of the 14 are serving sentences for murder. The other three are serving time for kidnapping, pharmacy robbery and assault. The last two were also charged with armed criminal action, meaning they carried a weapon while committing the crime.
  • None of the women had a history of violence before the crime that landed them in prison. Some had drug-related charges on their records.
  • All 14 women have a history of being abused as children or adults. Many also had addiction issues. 

Some of the women, the coalition said, did not directly harm anyone. That is the case of Amelia Bird, who is serving a 25-year sentence at the women's prison in Vandalia for second-degree murder and assault.
Bird's attorney, Anne Geraghty-Rathert of Webster University's WILLOW project, said Bird told a violent ex-boyfriend about the physical and sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of her father and brother. 

Amelia Bird photo from Missouri DOC
Credit (Missouri Department of Corrections)
Amelia Bird

"Her boyfriend entered her parent's home during the night while Amelia was sleeping and shot both of her parents," Geraghty-Rathert said.  "She took a plea to life in prison at the age of 17."

Other women killed abusive spouses or boyfriends in an attempt to escape the violence, coalition members said. But Trish Harrison, a SLU Law professor, said Missouri law only allows jurors to consider battered women syndrome if it's a classic case of self-defense, meaning that the woman is in immediate danger when she injures or kills her assailant. 

"Classic self-defense is not what battered women feel," Harrison said. "If there were an immediate threat, they would be preparing themselves for the harm. The crime usually happens when the immediate threat has calmed."

A Second Push

Harrison was also involved with a 1999 effort called the Missouri Battered Women's Clemency Coalition, which eventually secured the release of 11 women who had been sentenced to life without parole. That effort required a change in Missouri law that made battered women who had been convicted of murdering their spouse or partner before 1990 eligible for parole after 15 years. The women who are the focus of the Community Coalition for Clemency plea are not eligible for parole under that statute, but the same problem exists.

"Jurors tend to expect women to not behave this way," Harrison said. "Women should not be committing violence. Women should not be involved with people who commit violence. So, they tend to receive higher sentences than men. If you look at the statistics, men who kill their wives through domestic violence don't receive the same sentences as women who kill their husbands."

The new coalition has launched a Facebook page, and plans to start an online petition directed at Governor Nixon. The members are also planning trips to Jefferson City.

Publicity is the only way politicians will pay attention, said SLU Law's John Ammann. The recent scrutiny over the way the National Football League handled the domestic violence case of Ray Rice is proof of that.

"The Ray Rice incident was helpful to bring attention to some of these issues," he said. "But the forgotten victims are the ones who were the victims of domestic abuse 20, 30 years ago. So what do we do about them?"

Nixon has granted one clemency petition since he became governor in 2009. His office does not comment on pending clemency requests.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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