Contacts:

Melissa Salinas, Director, Federal Appellate Litigation Clinic, University of Michigan Law School, salinasm@umich.edu

Megan Richardson, Clinical Teaching Fellow, University of Michigan Law School, megarich@umich.edu

Carol Jacobsen, Director, Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, and Professor, University of Michigan, jacobsen@umich.edu

 

Today the University of Michigan Law School’s Federal Appellate Litigation Clinic and the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project at the University of Michigan have submitted clemency petitions to Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Parole Board on behalf of six female prisoners who are survivors of domestic violence and abuse. We also write in support of a seventh clemency petition that was submitted in November 2020. The petitions request commutation of the women’s mandatory life sentences stating they did not receive fair trials based on the facts of their cases. Each petition describes how the women were forced to defend themselves against violent assaults after police, courts and laws failed to protect them.

 

The petitions highlight cases that involve systemic as well as individual injustice based on gender and abuse. Many women call the police, and most leave or try to leave their abusers, to no avail. Michigan law is both too limited and too vague to provide due process or equal protection for women who were forced to commit crimes under duress or defend themselves against their abusers and then face criminal charges in court. In addition, the law does nothing to help women who are already incarcerated for protecting their own or their children’s lives.

 

The Michigan legal system is unique as compared to other states. Michigan law strictly limits testimony by expert witnesses, allowing for only a general discussion of “battered spouse syndrome” while generally prohibiting expert testimony that is considered not of “probative value.” It also has one of the most expansive approaches to accomplice liability, which exposes accomplices to the same liability and sentence as a principle for a crime, even when extenuating circumstances exist.  In addition, all of the women in this clemency group were subject to Michigan’s mandatory sentencing statute for first-degree murder, which did not allow judges to consider domestic abuse the defendant suffered, or attempts the defendant made to seek help from law enforcement prior to the crime.

 

Clemency by Governor Whitmer would commute the seven women’s sentences to time served, which spans from twelve to thirty-two years. While the facts of each case differentiate in detail, all stem from domestic violence as the precipitating factor. Issues of abuse were either deficiently raised or not presented at all in their trials. Research has shown that prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, court investigators, and juries all routinely bring gender biased myths and stereotypes to bear on the processing of battered women defendants with the result that women’s experiences are not given the weight of truth by the criminal-legal system. An estimated 175 battered women are currently serving life or long sentences for murder in Michigan who were defending themselves against or because of batterers. The group plans to submit more women’s cases to the Governor in the coming year to address the injustices these women represent.

 

The aforementioned faculty would like to see an end to the parole board system as it is today; in the meantime, it is our hope that Governor Whitmer will appoint members with professional social work and other professional backgrounds who have been educated about domestic violence and gender issues. We hope she will also appoint a special commutation board to make recommendations directly to her, as Governor Granholm did, in order to implement a process that allows for redress of excessive sentencing and overcriminalization.

 

These petitions were written through a pro-bono initiative, through the work of second-and third-year law students and alumni  at the University of Michigan Law School who have vetted, researched, and drafted the petitions under the direction and supervision of aforementioned faculty.

 

The seven women:

 

  1. PAULA BENNETT #691313, Washtenaw County, Murder I, Life, 2007. Paula drove her abusive boyfriend to her former roommate’s house to pick up clothes and property that belonged to them. While she was waiting in the car, her boyfriend argued with and then shot the former roommate. Jurors and a judge have written letters highlighting the injustice of the case.

 

  1. ANITRA COOMER #260348, Oakland County, Murder I, Life 1996. Under extreme duress from her violent boyfriend, Anitra agreed to drive him to rob someone. To her shock, he killed the woman and then threatened to kill Anitra and her family if she told anyone.

 

  1. LADONNA CUMMINGS #230856, Genesee County, Murder I, Life, 2005.  LaDonna survived beatings and threats to her life from her husband. She received no help from police when she called them. She left her husband in the house she had paid for and was moving out when she shot him in self-defense during a physical struggle.

 

  1. TOWANDA EPPENGER #251338  Wayne County, Murder I, Assault, Life, 1994.Towanda was a veteran of Desert Storm and suffering from PTSD when her ex-boyfriend attacked her friend in her car. Towanda shot him in defense of her friend during an incident that escalated quickly. She was offered a plea to serve five years, but her attorney advised her not to take it saying he would win her case.

 

  1. DELORES KAPUSCINSKI #191704, Kent County, Murder I, Life, 1988.  After years of sexual, emotional and financial abuse, Delores intended to kill herself but suddenly shot her husband instead after realizing the children would be left with him. Police did not call an attorney or stop interrogating her despite her requests.

 

  1. MELISSA SWINEY #285346 Oakland County, Murder I, Life, 1988. Melissa was an abused young woman, and a victim of incestual rape, when she hid her pregnancy and she gave birth in her truck when she was in shock. She left the newborn in a field and was hospitalized and under heavy medication for a breakdown when she “confessed” under duress from police. She was the only woman in Michigan to receive a life sentence for neonaticide in 28 years. The investigating officer, the arresting officer, a juror and others have fought for her release.

 

  1. LUANNE SZENAY #214992 Bay County, Murder I, Conspiracy, Life, 1990.LuAnne  was beaten, sexually abused, and threatened by her husband throughout their marriage. After she filed for divorce, he stalked her and kidnapped their daughter. Police did nothing to intervene. When an employee offered to protect her by killing her husband she agreed out of fear and desperation.  LuAnne’s daughter submitted a clemency petition that was drafted with support from this group in November 2020.