Group rallies for battered women's clemency

BY ARIKIA MILLIKAN

Published October 9, 2006

LANSING - Eighteen women from the University were perched atop the steps of the Capitol Building Friday, their faces painted bruised and bloody.

Printed on the backs of their dull blue prison uniforms were words like "sister," "mother" and "aunt." They represented victims of domestic abuse who have been imprisoned for crimes against their attackers.

The scene was part of a rally by the Michigan Battered Women's Clemency Project, a women's rights activist group started by University professors 15 years ago. The group has fought to obtain freedom for 20 women, most of whom are serving life sentences for injuring or killing their abusive partners while they were trying to defend themselves from an attack.

Participants of the demonstration donned this prison attire and painted their faces to convey the message that while the Michigan legal system may only see these women as vicious criminals, they are much more to their family and friends.

While the blood on the demonstrator's faces was purchased from a costume store, women such as Linda Hamilton once sported authentic hemoglobin courtesy of abusive partners.

After being repeatedly beaten by her husband, Hamilton finally decided to seek outside help in 1976 when she came home from to find him raping her 4-year-old daughter. She sought assistance from local law enforcement as well as her daughter's doctor, but she said nobody would get involved because of her husband's military involvement and position in the community.

Finally, she told a friend. Days later, Hamilton's husband was shot. Hamilton now serves life in prison for a crime she says she did not commit.

It's cases like this that led art Prof. Carol Jacobson to establish the clemency movement in 1991.

Although Gov. Jennifer Granholm rejected all 20 petitions for clemency in May, the group continues to press her to pardon the women.

"Many of these women never had fair trials," Jacobson said.

In some situations, evidence of spousal abuse was not permitted in the trial, she said.

Granholm had kept the petitions for two and a half years before announcing she would not grant any pardons last spring. Many members of the clemency group said they found it strange that a female governor would show so little compassion for the wrongful imprisonment of abused women. Several group members said they built up false hopes because the governor kept the petitions for so long.

Some members also question if Granholm's inaction may be motivated by her gubernatorial reelection campaign against Dick DeVos. Jacobson said Granholm might be trying to maintain a "hard-on-crime image."

Jacobson said though that DeVos would not be any more likely to grant clemency to the imprisoned women. She said a large part of the problem is due to the legal system being "male-constructed and interpreted" and that Granholm is "the last hope to redress injustices based on gender."

Jacobson also condemned the treatment some women receive in Michigan prisons such as Scott Prison in Genessee County. During research trips to this prison, Jacobson has found that many women in this facility are subjected to rape by prison guards, fall ill due to medical neglect and are "tortured because of mental illness."

One woman was even impregnated by a guard and gave birth to his child in prison, Jacobson said.

The Women's Clemency Project dedicates its campaigns to Connie Haynes, who committed suicide after serving 25 years in prison for a crime many say she did not commit. She experienced medical neglect for her rheumatoid arthritis in the years leading up to her death.

"Abu Ghraib has nothing on Michigan prisons," Jacobson said.

At the rally, Diane Engleman, a survivor of domestic abuse recently released from prison through the efforts of Jacobson's petitioning, illustrated what she called the gender biases in the Michigan legal system by recounting the story of Carol Irons.

Irons, one of the first female judges in the state of Michigan, was murdered in her courtroom in October 1988. The murderer was not a vengeful convict, but her own husband. After making his way through the police station below Irons' office with a gun, he bypassed security (which had been warned that he might try to harm Irons) and shot his wife in the face and throat, killing her. He also wounded a police officer in a struggle before he surrendered.

He received 16 years in prison and was released.

Eighteen out of the 20 women who murdered their husbands to save their own lives received life sentences.

Engleman drew attention to the inconsistency in punishment, wondering, "if someone as high up in society as a judge can't get justice, then what chance do other women have?"

One of the speakers at the rally pointed out that it costs much more to incarcerate a criminal that to educate a child in American society. Aside from ethical issues, that should be motivation to thoroughly consider clemency requests, he said.

Emily Peden, who led the rally, remains hopeful that the governor will be more generous after the election is over. The group plans to submit the petitions to the governor after the election, no matter who is in office.

"I hope she does something, but it's hard to believe she will," Peden said.

Should DeVos be elected, the group expects him to treat the petitions in the same way as former Gov. John Engler, who ignored them.

"He wouldn't even look at the petitions," Peden said.

The Michigan Legislature recently amended and passed a law that allows the use of deadly force without a duty to retreat if imminent death, great bodily harm or sexual assault is anticipated. But this law does not apply to domestic violence cases and some say many women are in prison for using precisely this kind of self-defense.