After nearly eight years, members of the Women Initiate Legal Lifelines to Other Women — or the WILLOW Project — have made a significant gain in the case of a woman convicted of helping in the 1994 murder of two elderly women in Missouri and Iowa.
The Missouri Parole Board granted Angel Stewart parole this month after spending 25 years behind bars. She’s still serving a life sentence in Iowa without the possibility of parole, although she and those helping her maintain she was not a part of the women’s murders.
Anne Geraghty-Rathert is the director of the WILLOW Project in Missouri, which is based at Webster University, where she is also a professor in the legal studies department. Geraghty-Rathert and the organization represent women who are post appeal, incarcerated and are believed to have been wrongly convicted of crimes.
Geraghty-Rathert said while getting parole in Missouri is a big step — especially as it was based on facts and not DNA evidence — there is still much work to be done to release Stewart.
“A lot of people get paroled, but not a lot of innocent people who have been in prison for 25 years get paroled and then still have to face yet another hurdle in another state to prove the same set of facts and their innocence in another state with diminished mental capacity added into the equation,” she said.
At the time, 19-year-old Stewart, her 1-year-old son and another teenage girl were held captive by 68-year-old Garland Shaffer and 38-year-old Steven Bradley. Geraghty-Rathert said both of the teenagers were physically and sexually abused by the two men in Iowa from May to June of 1994.
Between that time, Stewart witnessed crimes including the murders of the two elderly women.
“Ultimately Garland and Steven were both charged with first-degree kidnapping and first-degree murder in both the state of Iowa and in the state of Missouri,” Geraghty-Rathert said. “The original police officer didn’t suspect Angel or this 16-year-old girl of having committed any crimes. But ultimately they were charged along with Garland and Steven.”
The 16-year-old spent some time in the juvenile system but was soon released. Stewart was tried as an adult. She initially faced the death penalty for first-degree murder if she refused to plead guilty.
She subsequently pleaded guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in Missouri. But Geraghty-Rathert maintains Stewart could not have committed any crimes because she has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old.
“Angel couldn’t explain and still to this day can’t explain the timeline and the series of events,” she said. “It’s all very blurred. Like sometimes she would say she was held for a year. Then she’d say six months, then three months, and then a week. I mean, there just isn’t any logical time frame in her head for how and when and for what length of time these series of events occurred. Given her low level of mental functioning, I am sure the police were asking her questions and she simply couldn’t answer them.”
Stewart received nearly the same sentence in Iowa but without the possibility of parole. WILLOW Project is working with the Skylark Project in Iowa to seek clemency.
“In Iowa, they have a very different process where they have a board that sort of hears it and then recommends clemency with the governor, which is what she would ultimately have to receive, because she isn't parole eligible in Iowa," Geraghty-Rathert said.
If Stewart were serving her sentence in Missouri, her parole would be set for June 6, 2020.
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