A high-powered coalition is lobbying for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to free 14 women whom supporters say received overly harsh prison sentences that ignored abusive circumstances endured by the defendants.
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 Jame 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.
In news conferences in Kansas City and St. Louis Tuesday, they made some persuasive arguments: Most of the women were sentenced at a time when the criminal justice system regarded domestic violence as less of a factor than it does today. None of the women present a threat to society any longer. Their sentences are in many cases disproportionate with penalties handed out to men who do pose a menace to the community.
But the group faces formidable obstacles. Nixon has granted clemency only once in his six years as governor, to commute the death sentence of convicted murderer Richard Clay to life in prison. The governors who preceded him granted clemency must more frequently. Republican Matt Blunt used his authority to grant clemency 16 times. Democrat Mel Carnahan granted clemency 32 times, according to the coalition. Republican John Ashcroft awarded clemency to 30 people.
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Also, Nixon’s four terms as Missouri’s attorney general have made him reluctant to acknowledge that prosecutions can go wrong, although plenty of them do.
One of the women the group seeks to help is Donna Beirnacki, who was sentenced in 2006 to 20 years for killing her husband, James Beirnacki. Although a psychologist testified at trial that Donna Beirnacki was suffering the effects of prolonged spousal abuse, the judge excluded numerous orders of protection and police reports that would have documented the violence. Also, Beirnacki’s lawyer never let the jury know they could use evidence of abuse to find her not guilty.
The mother of four daughters, Beirnacki has been in prison for 10 years and isn’t scheduled for release until 2024.
Another defendant for whom the group is seeking clemency is Patty Prewitt, who is serving a life sentence for the 1984 murder of her husband in Holden, Mo. — a crime which she has always denied committing. Supporters say crucial evidence that could have pointed to a different suspect was never presented to Prewitt’s defense or a jury. Prewitt, now 65 and a grandmother of 10, has received multiple degrees inside of prison and serves the state as a computer programmer.
Relatives of the people whom the 14 women were convicted of killing will likely have their own stories. But the coalition is gearing up to make a compelling and extended plea for mercy for the 14 women. It will be difficult for Nixon to ignore, and I hope he doesn’t.
To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bshelly.