Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Friday, May 11, 2007

Case Law Development: Governor's Clemency for Women who Murder Their Batterers Must Be Respected By Board of Probation and Parole

In the culmination of a nine-year process involving a statewide coalition of law schools and advocates for battered women, two women in MIssouri were released from prison recently.  Shirley Lute, 76, has been imprisoned since 1981.  She was the oldest female inmate in a missouri prison. She was convicted of aiding her son in killing her husband, Melvin, who physically tortured and mentally tormented her. Lynda Branch, 54, was convicted of shooting her husband, Raymond, in 1986; she contends she got control of the gun only after her husband threatened to shoot her and her daughter.  Both women were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for at least 50 years, but Gov. Bob Holden commuted their terms in late 2004, just before he left office, making them immediately eligible for parole. However, the Board of Probation and Parole refused to grant them release, saying that "would depreciate the seriousness" of their crimes.

The Supreme Court ordered the board to reconsider, stating that:

The board erred in reconsidering the circumstances surrounding the women's offenses in denying them parole, as the governor already had considered these factors in deciding to commute their sentences. Because article IV, section 7 of the Missouri Constitution grants to the governor the sole authority to commute criminal sentences at his discretion, the board must follow the governor's orders. In interpreting the governor's commutations, this Court must give effect to his intent; because the governor is the sole author, only his intent is relevant. Further, the courts long have held that the governor's power to grant commutation is a mere matter of grace that the governor can exercise on the conditions and with the limitations he thinks proper. Here, both commutations explicitly stated the governor had examined the women's applications and the relevant facts in deciding to make them eligible for parole.

Read the court opinion (last visited May 11, 2007 bgf)

A group of law students from the four MIssouri law schools involved in this process wrote an article about the process.  See, Bridget B. Romero, Jennifer Collins, Carrie Johnson, Jennifer Merrigan, Lynn Perkins, Judith Sznyter, and Lisa Dale, Deconstructing The "Image" Of The Battered Woman: The Missouri Battered Women's Clemency Coalition: A Collaborative Effort In Justice For Eleven Missouri Women, 23 St. Louis U. Pub. L. Rev. 193 (2004).

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