[Dear Readers: Lynda Branch was the victim of domestic abuse for 11 years at the hands of her husband. The descriptions of her abuse contained in this story may disturb some readers.]
It was the day she had been dreaming of for 18 years and seven months: Wednesday, June 1, 2005. Lynda Branch woke up earlier than usual with a slightly nervous stomach and a gigantic smile. She was finally about to appear before the Probation and Parole Board.
After enduring 11 years of domestic violence in her marriage to Raymond Branch, Lynda had shot and killed her husband. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1986.
But then-Gov. Bob Holden commuted Lynda’s sentence to a regular life sentence with the possibility of parole in November 2004 after reviewing a clemency petition presented by the Missouri Clemency Coalition.
The coalition is a group of lawyers and advocates from the state’s four law schools — the University of Missouri-Kansas City, MU, St. Louis University and Washington University — and the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence created to fight for the release of 11 battered women convicted of killing their husbands.
That morning, Lynda says she awoke thinking that with her commutation from the governor, the parole hearing would surely just be a formality before granting her release. She knew there was a new Republican governor — Matt Blunt, who’d taken office in January 2005 — but Lynda had already served 18 years, and as these things usually went, she was picturing herself a free woman within a few weeks.
The nature of Lynda’s crime had already been evaluated by the court and the governor; she had a minimal record of prison violations; and she’d completed all of the classes available to her during her incarceration. She had even told her attorney, Mary Beck, not to bother coming up to Vandalia for such a short hearing. Her institutional parole officer told Lynda that her attorney could not represent her during the hearing.
At about 9:30 a.m., Lynda whispered a prayer and walked into the hearing. Seated at the table across from her solitary chair were one Probation and Parole board member, one parole analyst and one parole supervisor.
The board member was Dana Thompson, who’d been appointed to the board in March 2005 by Blunt and would be named chairman two days after Lynda’s parole hearing. Thompson is a former military police officer and a retired U.S. Army Reserve lieutenant colonel.
Thompson did most of the talking. He asked Lynda about her prison violations and her home and employment plans if granted release. She planned on living with her daughter and getting a job in Jefferson City. He also asked questions about the crime she’d committed.
But all in all, it was a brief hearing — maybe 15 minutes. She was told to expect a response in six to eight weeks.
That was the first surprise — such a long wait. The second arrived four weeks later — her petition for parole had been rejected.
It was a bitter disappointment, but then again Lynda was used to taking blows.
“I was going to be the perfect mother and have the white-picket-fence life.”
Lynda fell in love with Raymond Branch when she was 16 and working at a local diner. “He had the most beautiful brown eyes,” she says, still remembering with a smile. A regular at Sam & Joe’s Diner in Jefferson City, Lynda knew his order by heart — hamburger steak and french fries. He liked it with a lot of ketchup.
She remembers the first night he came in. He spilled ketchup all over his khaki pants, and they laughed hysterically. She asked him if there was anything she could do to help, and he said, “Yeah, let me take you out when you get off work.” That was the night Lynda fell in love with Raymond.
They dated on and off for two years before going their separate ways. They argued too often. Raymond married another woman; Lynda married Charles Hoerschgen and later gave birth to a daughter, Tammy. She was committed to motherhood.
“When I got married, I made up my mind that I was never going to leave my children or let anything happen to them,” she said. “I was going to be the perfect mother and have the white-picket-fence life.”
But the marriage began to crumble, and the couple divorced in 1974 with Lynda receiving full custody of their daughter. In spite of everything, she believes she was never really in love with Charles because of Raymond. She’d fallen in love with him and never fallen out.
Around the time that Lynda and Charles were splitting, Pamela Buford, Raymond’s first wife, divorced him. Lynda started dating Raymond again. It was a romantic courtship. There was no hint of a temper, she said.
They married in January 1975. She had long dreamed of wearing a beautiful dress and dancing all night at her reception, but there wasn’t enough money, and dancing all night is pretty much out of the question when you’re seven months pregnant. Still, she was content.
“I thought, with him, I can have everything,” she said. “He made me feel like I could do anything when he was there.”
That night, after the reception, Raymond and Lynda argued. Lynda said a marriage should be 50-50, with a husband and a wife having an equal say and equal rights. He disagreed.
Then he hit Lynda with such force that the rocking chair she was sitting in tipped over and threw her out, and she landed on her stomach, she said.
One week later she lost the baby.
Raymond apologized incessantly, promising it would never happen again. “He told me he never loved anyone like he loved me,” Lynda said.
“When Raymond wasn’t drinking and getting really drunk, he was a good man and a very good provider,” she said. “He was a hard worker; he was good with my child; and I loved him so much.”
But he had rules. He only wanted her to be friends with his friends. He disliked her working, and he constantly checked the mileage on her car. He began to sleep with one leg over her to make sure she did not leave the bed when he was sleeping.
The physical abuse escalated from slapping and kicking to severe beatings. At one time or another, he burned her breast with a cigarette, cut her arm with a knife, raped her and shot at her, she said. Lynda still has a few scars on her right arm from the cigarette burns.
He locked her in closets for hours until she promised to do whatever he wanted, she said. Most times, it was sex. Lynda remembers how he forced her to crawl across the floor on her hands and knees, lick his boots and tell him that he was her master. He demanded oral and anal sex. He reminded her that she was his wife and had to do what he wanted. That included being handcuffed, having her breasts bitten and her nipples twisted until she begged him to stop.
“Most of the Branch family members who drank thought they were king of the world when they got drunk,” said Shirley Branch, Lynda’s sister-in-law.
Shirley Branch is married to Bill Branch, Raymond’s half-brother. Bill Branch declined talking to a reporter about Raymond or Lynda. Shirley Branch explained that most of Raymond’s 12 siblings don’t think Lynda deserves a second chance outside prison.
Kenny Branch, Raymond’s younger brother, also declined an interview.
Raymond’s temper seemed to grow worse as their marriage continued. Anything could set him off, Lynda said.
Becky Langley, Raymond’s sister, said she saw that side of Raymond. “He picked my brother up by the throat and hung him up against the wall,” Langley said. “He definitely had a temper and would often snap during a drunken fit.”
Shirley Branch and Langley both saw the bruises on Lynda and knew Raymond was to blame.
Lynda remembers a night they’d come home from a party where Raymond had been drinking. He accused her of cheating on him and began shoving her around. Panicked, she ran to the phone to call the police. Raymond ran after her, grabbed the telephone receiver, pushed her into the wooden kitchen cabinets and beat her with the receiver, she said.
Regina McGee, the Branches’ babysitter, was still in the house and took Tammy into the bedroom where she could not see or hear the fighting. McGee called the police and Lynda’s mother. An ambulance came, but before Lynda was taken to the hospital, Raymond warned her not to say anything, or she would get it worse when she got home.
She refused to press charges when the sheriff came into the emergency room. She feared what Raymond might do if he found out she’d told police what he’d done, but she also did not want to see the man she loved go to prison. Lynda was admitted to intensive care with eyes so swollen, she could not see.
According to the medical record from that particular night at St. Mary’s Health Center in Jefferson City, Lynda had bruises on her head, arms and hands as well as a joint sprain.
“I figured I did something wrong to deserve this.”
On another occasion, Raymond strangled Lynda’s cat, Fluffy, a white Persian, and left it for her to find — hanging from the rear-view mirror inside her car. She remembers him telling her that she would be next.
After every act of abuse, “He would say, ‘Lynda if you would just shut up and quit making me do these things, I wouldn’t do these things,’” she said. Other times he would start crying and threaten to kill himself if she did not forgive him, she said. “I fell for it every time.”
Lynda hid the abuse. “It became second nature to me to tell the doctors I just fell because I was embarrassed,” she said.
Lynda began to blame herself. “I began to think if I could clean the house better or cook better or fry the chicken more, then it would be better, but I was already good at all that,” she said. “I figured I did something wrong to deserve this.”
Tammy grew up mostly in the care of her grandparents, Tom and Gladys Lett, because Lynda would take her to them when she was worried about Raymond’s drinking and the beatings that followed.
“I knew my mom always had some bruises but she always said she had just run into something or slipped and fell,” Tammy, now 33, said. “I just thought she was a klutz.”
Raymond never abused Tammy and always treated her like his own daughter, Tammy said. “But I’ve seen him get so mad that it’s like his face turns bright red, and there were veins in his neck and in his forehead that would pop, I mean stick out. You could see them,” Tammy, 17 at the time, said on the witness stand during Lynda’s second trial. Tammy also testified that Raymond would bar the doors of the house routinely, drink nonstop and sleep with his gun.
When the fighting escalated and Lynda did not know where to turn, she met with her minister to discuss the problems in the marriage. He told her the Bible says the man rules his wife and is the head of the household, and the woman should be submissive to her husband. “I left there with the feeling that it was all my fault and I just better straighten up,” she said.
But then the beginning of the end came.
Raymond handcuffed her to the bed, ripped off her clothes and began having sex with her, she said. Afterwards, he forced her to the dining room where he handcuffed her arms to the legs of the kitchen table.
He accused her of having an affair and grabbed a candlestick from the kitchen table that usually served as a centerpiece. While forcing the stick in and out of her vagina, he said “you like it don’t you, yeah you like it” while Lynda was begging him to stop, she said.
Pushing the candle inside of her with the wick exposed, he lit the candle. The wax slowly began to drip and burn her vagina. She says she is still scarred from the burn.
Pausing to wipe the tears from her eyes she said, “I was screaming and he was putting his hand over my mouth and was saying you make me do this to you, I’ll make it so no one ever wants you again.”
When it was over, she laid on the kitchen floor for several minutes then stood up and walked to the bathtub where she soaked in ice-cold water for hours. She knew it was time to get out.
"I’m going to kill you just like I should have killed Pam."
A week later, May 16, 1986, Lynda found the courage.
Tammy, 14 at the time, had gone to the movies with her friends. With Tammy out of the house, Lynda told Raymond she was going to leave him. He told her he would never let her leave.
This is what Lynda testified happened that night and what she says today: She picked up Tammy from the movies around 9:30 p.m. Tammy went to bed in her room, Lynda fell asleep on the couch, and Raymond sat drinking beer in his recliner. His blood alcohol content that evening was 0.16, according to a toxicology report.
She recalls how he jerked her off the couch by the hair and told her to go the bedroom and get in the bed where she belonged. “He said that’s where I needed to be and that I was not going anywhere,” she said. Lynda complied and fell asleep. When she woke up, Raymond was standing over her with something in his hand.
“He said, ‘I’m going to kill you just like I should have killed Pam (his first wife),’” she said.
She shudders when she talks about how he looked — like a man possessed. She realized he had his gun in his hand wrapped in a white sheet. It was the gun he kept locked in his truck or under his pillow when he slept.
She remembers saying, “OK, Raymond, if you’re going to kill me, go ahead and do it, but what about Tammy?” He said that he would take care of Tammy, too, and she was sure she knew what he meant.
She sat up in the bed, got to her knees and lunged for the gun. They struggled on the bed, and she was able to get hold of the handle of the gun while he pulled on the barrel. She bit and scratched him in the fight. A medical examiner testified at her trial that Raymond Branch had been scratched on the arms.
Then the .22 caliber semi-automatic pistol fired, and Raymond went down. “I don’t know if I pulled that trigger or not,” Lynda said. “All I wanted to do was get the damn thing and run.”
Lynda says she backed up out of the bedroom, tripped over a shoe and fell backwards, which made the gun go off again. That’s how the second bullet hit Raymond, she says.
She says she ran to the kitchen to call the police, but the phone there didn’t work because the bedroom receiver had fallen off the hook during their struggle. Then Raymond appeared at the top of the stairs, and she went to him. She says he grabbed her, and they both fell down the steps. She covered him with blankets because she knew people went into shock when they were shot. She finally called the police at 12:30 a.m. Emergency medical technicians would later estimate that Raymond Branch died at about 12:15.
She quickly changed the spattered bed sheets, threw the gun outside and changed out of her bloody underwear and put on new clothes. She now freely admits — as she did in court — that she covered up the crime because she was scared of going to jail and losing her daughter.
When the police arrived, they found Raymond lying dead in the foyer of the apartment with two bullet wounds and covered with a blanket and a sheet. She told them that someone had come to the door and shot her husband.
While Lynda was at the Jefferson City Police station, the medical examiner found shell casings and a bullet in the bedroom. It was determined that Raymond had been shot there, not in the apartment foyer, and Lynda’s story about someone shooting him at the front door fell apart.
She was arrested about 5 a.m. for the murder of her husband.
“She was anything but a battered spouse”
The story was big news in Jefferson City. The coverage was so intense that the first trial was moved to Cape Girardeau. The Letts, Lynda’s foster parents, hired Cyril Hendricks, a criminal defense attorney, to represent her. Tom Brown was the prosecuting attorney.
Judge A.J. Seier, a Circuit Court judge for Cole County in 1986, did not allow Hendricks to admit any evidence of domestic abuse before 1980, and at the time “battered women’s syndrome” did not exist as a diagnosis.
In court, Brown portrayed Lynda as a cold-blooded killer, and he still believes she is one today.
“She was anything but a battered spouse,” Brown said. “It was kind of sad and ironic that she is the poster child of spousal abuse.”
Brown was elected judge a few months after the trial.
Lynda was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. She was 34 when she went to prison. She appealed her case to the Eastern District Missouri Court of Appeals and was granted a new trial on the grounds that certain evidence had been improperly excluded — specifically, testimony about the abuse she had suffered for 11 years.
The second trial in March 1989 took place in Columbia with Richard Callahan prosecuting. Her new attorneys, John Williams and James Freer, were allowed to put on the stand two physicians, who had worked with battered women, and Lynda describing the abuse. But the pair said they couldn’t find Regina McGee, the babysitter who Lynda said had witnessed the beating with the telephone receiver. However Joel Elmer, a public defender who represented Lynda during a post-conviction relief hearing, located McGee after doing less than an hour of research, Elmer says.
And for reasons they described as “strategic,” Williams and Freer didn’t want to admit into evidence the medical record that noted Lynda’s injuries caused by the beating with the telephone receiver. The April 23, 1978, record from St. Mary’s Health Center in Jefferson City, stated: “This is a 25-year-old, white female who was admitted to the hospital after her husband had beaten her about the face and forehead during a fight immediately prior to the hospital admission. She had blurred vision and was unable to count fingers for a certain period of time. She has been beaten several times before by this husband.”
A jury again convicted Lynda of first-degree murder and recommended a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. All Lynda remembers from that moment is the look on her family’s face. Tammy started to scream and cry in the courtroom.
Callahan, now a Cole County Circuit Court judge, said he still feels justice was done. “I could not believe that Lynda Branch was ever the victim of domestic violence, and if I thought that were the case, I would have handled the case much differently,” he said.
Lynda filed three more appeals on the basis that neither a judge nor a jury ever saw all the evidence of the abuse she’d suffered. She lost all three appeals.
That may have been the end of her story — a prison cell for the past 19 years, 6 months, and 21 days.
But a high school reunion, four law schools and two old friends would thrust Lynda into the center of the governor’s office and of a debate over just how much punishment convicted battered women should suffer at the hands of the Missouri Probation and Parole Board.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE BY THE NUMBERS
4,237 adults and children were turned away from domestic violence shelters last year because there was not enough space.
In 2004, law enforcement agencies reported 39,097 incidents of domestic violence.
In 2004, 51 domestic violence homicides were reported (22.5 percent were husbands or wives; 18.4 percent were girlfriends; 13.7 percent were boyfriends).
In 2004, the State Highway Patrol reported the highest number of domestic violence incidents since 1999.
In the United States:
As many as 4 million women are assaulted by spouses or partners each year, and 1,200 are killed.
555,000 serious injuries are caused by domestic abusers each year.
145,000 women are hospitalized each year for domestic abuse injuries.
8.8 million children witness domestic violence each year.
73 percent of domestic violence incidents go unreported.
31 percent of all female homicide victims are slain by their husbands or boyfriends.
15 percent of all domestic abuse victims are men.
$4.1 billion is spent yearly on medical and mental health care as a direct result of domestic violence.
In domestic abusive relationships, assaults began 40 percent of the time during the woman’s first pregnancy.
There have been 1 million calls to the national domestic violence hot line since 1996.
There are 1,200 battered women’s shelters, but 3,800 animal shelters (3 times the number of shelters for women and their children).
More women seek treatment for domestic violence injuries than from the combination of muggings, rapes and car accidents.
Domestic violence is the number one cause of injury to women.
One out of every two women will be in a violent relationship in her lifetime.
An annual cost of lost productivity due to domestic violence is estimated at $727.8 million, with more than 7.9 million paid workdays lost each year.
In 1992, a congressional report indicated that the most dangerous place in the U.S. for a woman to be is in her home.
Data taken from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Centers for Disease Control, FBI