Court to hear why women’s commutation is ignored

The women remain in prison for killing their abusive husbands.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:11 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

The Missouri Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole have until Dec. 6 to explain to the Missouri Supreme Court why two women who are serving life sentences for murdering their abusive husbands and later received commutations of their sentences are still being held in prison.

On Nov. 21, the high court sustained writs of habeas corpus for Lynda Branch, 54, and Shirley Lute, 75. Branch shot and killed her husband after enduring 11 years of beatings and sexual assaults, she told the Missourian this year. In 1986, she was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Lute also was sentenced to life in prison in 1981 after her son killed her husband. Lute had reported abuse, including being locked in an unheated basement for days at a time and being forced to wear a collar and bark like a dog.

In 2004, then-Gov. Bob Holden commuted Branch and Lute’s sentences to life in prison with the possibility of parole. However, both of their requests for parole were denied by the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole. In May 2006, Branch and Lute filed petitions for writs of habeas corpus in circuit court, arguing that the board used inapplicable laws and regulations in rejecting their paroles. Those petitions were denied, as were the women’s petitions to the Western District Court of Appeals in September of this year.

“The women have filed a petition that sets forth their viewpoint, and the (probation and parole) board will be able to file another pleading that responds to what the women have alleged,” said Beth Riggert, a spokeswoman for Missouri’s Supreme Court.

Once the state’s Department of Corrections and Board of Probation and Parole file their response to the women’s petitions, the Supreme Court will make a decision on the validity of their cases. If the Supreme Court doesn’t deny the women’s requests, a briefing on the cases will be held 30 days after the Dec. 6 deadline.

The Missouri Clemency Coalition, a group of lawyers and advocates from four Missouri law schools — including MU’s — and the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, championed Branch and Lute’s cause along with those of nine other battered women who are serving sentences for killing their husbands.

Mary Beck, a leader in the coalition and Branch’s attorney, said the high court’s decision to sustain the writ is a positive development.

“It could either be granted or denied, but at this point it is still alive,” Beck said. “I regard that as good news.”

Holden, who now teaches at Webster University in St. Louis, said he hopes the high court will eventually decide to reconsider Branch’s case.

“I think for her case and for the cases of many women in similar situations, it’s important the court look at it in light of new information about domestic violence occurrences,” Holden said.

Michael Spillane, attorney for the Department of Corrections and the parole board, was not available for comment.

Both Branch and Lute are currently being held in the Chillicothe Correctional Center in Chillicothe.

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