Grant Clemency for 14 Women in Missouri Prisons
This petition had 2,284 supporters
The Community Coalition for Clemency is calling on Governor Jay Nixon to commute the sentences of 14 women who are incarcerated in Missouri prisons.
The purpose of the new organization is to advocate for incarcerated women in Missouri who received sentences that were disproportionate to their crimes, and in many cases, harsher than what anyone would receive in similar circumstances today. Some of the women have spent more than 30 years in prison already.
The Coalition is advocating for 14 women who have clemency petitions now pending before Governor Nixon. Governor Nixon has granted only one clemency petition during two terms in office, unlike his predecessors who granted dozens of petitions.
These women pose no threat to public safety, and had no history of violent crime prior to the convictions for which they are now incarcerated. Four of the women are over the age of 65. Most of the women were victims of domestic violence, but society did not recognize the problem in a way that assisted these victims.
This new organization is raising awareness that domestic violence can lead women, who have tried to leave their abusers but are threatened when they do, often kill their abusers as they only means to protect their children and themselves. Several of them women have life sentences, and just last week Pope Francis labeled life-long prison terms as a “hidden death penalty” and urged for the special treatment of elderly prisoners. Many of the women represented by this coalition have already been incarcerated for decades and have no hope of parole for decades more. The Coalition asks Governor Nixon to reflect on the words of Pope Francis and show mercy to these women.
The Women Seeking Clemency---
The coalition is advocating specifically for these 14 women, listed beginning with the women who have served the longest time in prison.
Here are summaries of the women:
Donna Biernacki is serving 20 years in a Missouri state prison for killing her abusive husband, James Biernacki. Her husband subjected Donna and their four young girls to years of physical, mental, and sexual abuse. At the time of her trial, the judge excluded all of the orders of protection and police reports which documented the previous abuse. Large portions of the jury instructions on battered spouse syndrome were not submitted at her trial, so the jury never knew that they could use the evidence of abuse to find Donna not guilty.
Donna was convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. She has been incarcerated for almost 10 years. Donna, who has been plagued by a myriad of illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, continues to have health and mobility problems in prison. Without clemency, she will remain incarcerated until 2024. This sentence is disproportionate given the history and evidence of abuse, and the overwhelming mitigating circumstances in her case.
Amelia Bird suffered extreme physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her father and brother throughout her life. As a teenager, Amelia resorted to drugs and an unstable and violent boyfriend, Chad Brantley, for refuge and comfort. When she was 16 years old, she complained to her then ex-boyfriend Brantley about the abuse. In an effort to win back Amelia’s affections and to enable him to continue to control her life, Brantley took it upon himself to enter her parents’ house at night while Amelia was sleeping and shot both of her parents. Her mother died and her father was badly injured.
Charged along with Brantley, and threatened with first degree murder and the death penalty, Amelia eventually relented and took the plea to second-degree murder and first-degree assault. She received two life sentences to be served consecutively, and won’t be eligible for parole until she is at least 60.
Amanda lived in a household ruled by drugs and regular abuse by her father. After the death of her mother, and at 17 years of age, Amanda “married” a man in his 30’s who was a friend of her father’s. By all accounts, this man also routinely controlled and abused Amanda psychologically for most of her waking moments. This man was feared not only by Amanda but by all members of the local community. When a local woman was found brutally murdered, Amanda’s abusive father and husband were charged with the crime. Her husband was sentenced to life, but charges against her father were dropped. In order to free Amanda’s father, Amanda’s similarly abused younger brother implicated Amanda in the crime five years after its commission.
Amanda was convicted of second degree murder on May 27, 2004. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Her defense at trial on the murder charge lasted a total of 3 minutes, from 12:59 pm to 1:02 pm. Since the time of her arrest in 2003, she has maintained her innocence and continuously denies being at the scene of the crime. In addition, her younger brother has since recanted his implication of Amanda.
At 58 years old, Renae Green has spent the last 25 years of her life in prison. In 1989, at age 33, Renae was convicted of Pharmacy Robbery First Degree and Armed Criminal Action. Renae was sentenced to 30 years and life with parole, to be served consecutively. She is not eligible for parole until 2029, at which time she will be 74 years old. In Missouri, there have been 31 males convicted of Pharmacy Robbery First Degree and the average sentence is 14.3 years. Ms. Green is the only female convicted of Pharmacy Robbery First Degree in Missouri in the last three decades, and her sentence of 30 years is approximately more than double that of the average sentence men have served for this crime.
Renae did not harm anyone in the incident for which she was convicted.
The story behind Renae’s descent into addiction and current incarceration begins with a troubled childhood. She started running away from home at 13 years old and became completely estranged from her family. She last saw her father and stepmother in 1983 and her father died in 2010. No family member informed her of his death. As an adolescent, she began associating with people who introduced her to alcohol of drugs, and Renae became unable to break from that vicious cycle. With the benefit of the passage of time and her participation in rehabilitation programs, Renae has accepted complete responsibility for her actions. Today, she is on the floor crew at the Chillicothe Correctional Center. She is responsible for waxing the floors and keeping them clean Monday through Friday. Upon release, Ms. Green intends on pursuing massage therapy as a career and has already requested information from USA Careers on the available programs. Renae has maintained a close friendship with a married couple from Missouri, and they have promised to provide her with housing and transportation upon her release from incarceration. Their friends, family, and church will be a source of support for Renae as well.
The circumstances of Tequila’s case are unique and present a compelling case for clemency. Tequila is now 36 years old, and was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused as a child. The failure to connect her with the community resources she needed to be a healthy, productive member of society led her to criminal behavior and contact with the criminal justice system. Now after years of rehabilitation and the appropriate medical treatment, Tequila should be granted clemency. Tequila is currently serving a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to assault and armed criminal action. Tequila accepts full responsibility for her crime. She has already served 10 years in prison. Without clemency, Tequila will remain incarcerated until 2026. Tequila has the support of family and friends upon her release. She has many people that will support her emotionally and financially, as she readjusts to life outside prison.
Judy Henderson is a 65-year-old woman from Springfield convicted for her role in a robbery-turned-murder in 1981. Judy has served 33 years of a mandatory 50 year sentence without parole, although she had no prior criminal history and did not directly participate in the murder. The same attorney, despite the severe unethical conflict of interest, represented both Judy and her co-defendant in the trial. And her co-defendant was never convicted. Because Judy experienced rampant physical and sexual abuse from early childhood through her adult life, her participation in the crime came out of fear of her co-defendant and a learned behavior of acquiescence to avoid injury.
Since incarceration, Judy has spent her time continually improving herself in hope and anticipation of someday returning to her life and serving her community. While there are far too many accomplishments and participations to list, Judy’s proudest accomplishments include completing coursework towards a Bachelor’s degree and earning a certificate in Paralegal Studies. Further, Judy is certified to teach Sports Fitness, Muscular and Strength Training, Group Resistance Training, Mechanics of Injury Prevention, Zumba, and Yoga. Judy is a positive, uplifting, and vibrant person, and upon release, a law firm has already offered her a job as a paralegal. Judy also wishes to continue her active lifestyle by working as a personal trainer upon release. She also plans to spend as much time as possible with her daughter, grandchildren, and siblings.
Judy was convicted of capital murder, a murder plotted and executed by her boyfriend, Greg Cruzen. When Judy she drove with him out a country road, Cruzen shot and robbed the victim. Judy was struck in the abdomen with one of the bullets. The plan involved their flight to Alaska. On the way they met with an attorney to whom they confided what they had done. The attorney agreed to represent both of them if they were apprehended, on the condition that if one of them were offered a plea bargain to testify against the other, he would have to withdraw from both cases.
Before the co-defendant’s case was tried, Judy realized she had been sold out and hired a different attorney who obtained an agreement for leniency for her testimony against him. But because the prosecutor never called her as a state's witness he refused to honor his offer. Cruzen, with no witness to connect him to the scene, was acquitted, while Judy received a life sentence. With no parole.
Kim Hennessy is now 47 years old and suffered horrendous sexual abuse as a child. In an attempt to protect her sister, Kim sacrificed herself – she undertook regular and repeated sexual abuse to ensure that her sister would not suffer the same horrifying experiences that Kim had suffered. She has been incarcerated for 14 years for killing her husband after she struggled with drug addiction for many years. Her husband was emotionally abusive to her. But Kim accepts full responsibility for this crime. Her mind was altered from the various drugs she had been taking at the time, and she made the worst decision of her life.
Kim longs to live with her father in Oklahoma and help him with his business.
MARGARET “MAGGIE” HODGES
Margaret “Maggie” Hodges is a 52 year-old woman currently serving her 19th year of three life sentences for her role in three murders in 1995. She was an unwilling participant in these crimes and did not directly commit the acts of violence. She was forced to participate while being threatened that she would be the next victim of the murderer. Maggie’s sentences are grossly disproportionate to her role in the crimes.
Maggie was severely unstable before and after the crime. A medical report on Maggie details the family history of emotional and mental problems, brain damage, neurological damage, physical problems, family dysfunction and sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental/emotional illness and substance abuse that affected her decision-making ability. After her arrest, she was held at a state hospital due to her mental condition.
Maggie has fantastic support upon release. She has a stable place to live with her mother. She has gained skills throughout her incarceration which will provide for her financial, social, and emotional well-being for the remainder of her life. Maggie has been leading AA meetings at the prison after receiving a diploma in drug and alcohol counseling. She plans to continue to help those with addictions if released.
Verdia Miller is 72 years old and is currently serving a life sentence without parole for fifty years in a Missouri state prison for her role in a shooting death. She has already served 30 years in prison for the killing. Without clemency, she will remain incarcerated until at least 2032. Verdia’s sentence is disproportionate given the history and evidence of severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in her case. A commutation now would correct the injustice done in her case - an injustice which cannot be corrected through the legal system.
Verdia was present during the killing in 1978, but did not directly participate. She was not even charged in the crime until her co-defendant pleaded guilty. She herself was threatened by the killer, and Verdia voluntarily went into protective custody in the county jail of Carthage, Missouri. While there, exhausted and affected by mental health issues, she made statements which led to her conviction. Verdia was a victim of Battered Woman’s Syndrome. Verdia was abused by her ex-husband, was assaulted by a couple of ex-boyfriends, and was raped twice, which contributed to her mental health issues and fear for her life. Given the mitigating factors, and the evidence of abuse at the time of the crime, the sentence Verdia received was harsh and disproportionate.
Verdia is 72 years old and presents a low risk of recidivism because the nature of her crime is not one that suggests repeat; she has a positive and diligent work ethic; she abstains from illegal drug use; she has chronic health problems; and she has a strong network of family, friends and counselors, who support her release and have pledged their willingness to ensure her success outside of prison. Verdia takes full responsibility for her involvement, is truly remorseful, and has already served a significant prison sentence to pay for the crime. Further, Verdia maintains an excellent behavioral prison record, has become an ordained minister, and has made an effort to involve herself in positive work that benefits both the prison and outside communities.
Connie Pair has never physically harmed anyone. But she has already served 12 years in prison; she is sentenced to another 13 years.
Connie’s horror story began in 1993 when her boyfriend began heavy drug use and starting abusing Connie. He threatened her life. He pointed guns at her in the middle of the night. He threatened her son. Connie was a victim of domestic violence. She and her son were victims of the violence for ten years.
On August 4, 1993, he came home in a drunken rage; Connie left to get cigarettes, and returned home to find the police at her door. Her boyfriend had been shot and Connie was later charged with second-degree murder for planning his shooting. The original charges against her were dropped, and she was not even charged again until 9 years after the killing. Her attorney advised her she would likely be convicted, so she pled guilty. She was told her sentence would be no more than 10 years. She was sentenced to 25 years, the maximum sentence, despite no record saying explaining why.
If granted clemency, Connie will move to Cape Girardeau and devote her life to teaching young people about the cycle of domestic violence.
Vera Palmer is a 61 year old breast cancer survivor who is incarcerated at the women’s prison in Chillicothe, Missouri. She is serving a life sentence without parole for first degree murder.
Vera had a rough past, but manages to live each day to the fullest and walks around with a bright smile. She was raised in a decent home with a mother who encouraged her to pursue an education and take her studies seriously. However, she fell victim to a drug addiction. For nine years, Vera’s boyfriend abused her behind closed doors, but also in public. In addition to the abuse, he was a crack dealer and got Vera to start using cocaine. They lived with her boyfriend’s father, who was an alcoholic and verbally abusive towards Vera. One night, Vera came home to find the father of her boyfriend standing in the doorway holding a pistol and a bag of drugs. An argument ensued and a scuffle followed. Vera was able to get a hold of the gun and fired but did not intend to kill.
Vera underwent treatment for breast cancer and had a mastectomy in 2011, and went through chemotherapy in 2012. She is now in remission. Vera has taught a class on impact of crime on victims for many years. She has the support of family and friends who will help her if she is released.
Mary Pickard is a 66 year old woman currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole at the Chillicothe Correctional Center in Chillicothe, Missouri. She was sentenced to prison for her role in the death of her husband, even though she was not directly involved in the killing. Mary has already served over 15 years in prison.
Mary was the long-standing victim of her husband's words and fists. She was subject to years of physical, emotional, verbal and sexual assault from her husband. In the final year of the marriage, Mary was annihilated with daily physical and verbal threats and assaults which lead to her intense depressive state. She was backed into a corner; she was unaware of any resources; she was alone. She was looking for someone to help her and her son, but she only received abuse.
A psychologist who examined Mary for her case stated, “The examiner is of the opinion that the circumstances of Mary's life were such that she believed her life and that of her son, Nathan, to be in serious imminent danger....”
Mary's friends and family are ready to support her upon her release. She looks forward to living on her friend's farm, helping the family with their restaurant and participating in their church. She wants to be able to share her knowledge of the resources available to all victims of domestic violence and wishes simply to live a normal life free from abuse.
Patty Prewitt is a 65 year-old grandmother of ten who is serving a life sentence after being convicted of murdering her husband in 1984. Patty has always maintained her innocence and, indeed, serious flaws surround her conviction. Investigators were all too quick to judge Patty as their prime suspect, and they consequently failed to collect and in some cases simply ignored key evidence, preventing her lawyers from fully presenting Patty’s account of a home intruder that attacked Patty and killed her husband. At trial, the prosecution paraded former paramours on the stand, all of whom had relations with her that ended more than five years before the crime, during a period when her husband had withdrawn his affections. This inflammatory testimony and the lead investigator’s dubious claim that Patty tried to seduce him during his investigation unduly influenced the jury’s perception of Patty and resulted in the guilty verdict she received. Crucial eyewitness evidence from a neighbor who saw a man parked in a vehicle with its lights off near the Prewitt’s rural home on the night of the murder was never shared with the defense nor presented to the jury. Maintaining her innocence and trusting our legal system, she declined a plea bargain that would have made her eligible for parole after just seven years.
Patty is the longest serving woman at the prison in Vandalia and a model inmate. She has received multiple educational degrees. She has helped prepare her fellow inmates for productive lives outside of prison by tutoring many women as they pursued their GEDs and helping women obtain fitness certifications. Patty herself serves her state as a computer programmer. She is active in Residents Encounter Christ and Prison Performing Arts. Two of her plays have been performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Her release is supported by religious leaders, political leaders from both sides of the aisle, and, most of all, her children who desperately want their mother home. Her clemency petition, submitted in 2010, is pending with Governor Nixon.
ANGEL CHARLENE STEWART
Angel Stewart was a teenager in 1994 when she was held captive by two men in Iowa. While these two men brutally raped and terrorized Angel and another juvenile female, they also threatened harm to Angel’s one year old child whom they also held captive. During their captivity, these two men kidnapped and murdered two elderly women from their neighborhood and murdered them—one in Iowa, one in Missouri. Angel’s only thought throughout the horrific events continued to be protecting her baby from harm.
When the police caught up to them, Angel ran to them with her child in her arms, and immediately locked herself in a patrol car. The initial officers on the scene then considered her a victim and immediately drove her to a local store to purchase food and diapers for her child. It was only later that they were instructed that she was a “participant” in the crimes. Angel refused to plead guilty to any crime for over a year. Threatened with the death penalty, she eventually pled guilty to kidnapping and received a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Angel was physically and sexually abused by her father for a number of years prior to these events. Angel also has severe learning issues which inhibited her ability to read and to comprehend her plea agreement. Angel has been incarcerated since 1994, has been in prison for 20 years for the murders which she did not commit, while being victimized herself.
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