A coalition seeking clemency for 14 female inmates in Missouri prisons is making some persuasive arguments. Gov. Jay Nixon should listen.
Community Coalition for Clemency wants Nixon to commute the sentences of 14 women who are serving long terms for crimes ranging from armed robbery to murder. Most of them were victims of sexual abuse and/or domestic violence. Four are older than 65, and some have already spent more than 30 years behind bars.
The coalition argues, with good cause, that many of the women were sentenced after trials that did not fully account for abusive circumstances they endured. With a new focus on domestic violence, they remain forgotten victims.
Donna Beirnacki of Springfield was sentenced in 2006 to 20 years for killing her husband. Although a psychologist testified she was suffering the effects of prolonged spousal abuse, the judge excluded numerous orders of protection and police reports that would have documented the violence. Beirnacki’s lawyer never let the jury know they could use evidence of abuse to find her not guilty. Beirnacki, the mother of four daughters, suffers from multiple sclerosis. She is scheduled to remain in prison until 2024.
None of the 14 women poses a threat to society. But their sentences are in many cases disproportionate with penalties handed out to men who do present a menace.
Rena Green, 58, has been in prison 25 years for her conviction of a 1989 pharmacy robbery in which no one was physically injured. She is not eligible for parole until 2029, when she will be 74. According to the coalition, 31 men have been convicted of pharmacy robbery in Missouri, and their average sentence is 14.3 years. Without clemency, Green will serve 40 years.
The Community Coalition for Clemency includes former Gov. Bob Holden, St. Louis University School of Law professor John Ammann, St. Louis defense attorney Robert Ramsey and retired Missouri Court of Appeals Judge James R. Dowd. Colleen Coble, executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, is also part of the group asking the governor to commute the women’s sentences.
Nixon has granted clemency once in his six years as governor, to commute the death sentence of convicted murderer Richard Clay to life in prison. Governors who preceded him used that authority much more frequently —16 times for Republican Matt Blunt; 32 times for Democrat Mel Carnahan; 30 times for Republican John Ashcroft.
“This is about mercy,” Ammann said during a news conference last week. “It’s the last level at which you can correct a criminal justice system gone wrong.”
Nixon must give due diligence to the clemency petitions. These women have lived hard lives, and some are in poor health. Many have acquired education credentials and valuable skills in prison. There is nothing to be gained from having them serve out overly long sentences at taxpayers’ expense.