Court rules in favor of inmates

Women convicted of murdering their abusive husbands get parole hearings.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:31 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Missouri Supreme Court has ruled that the state Board of Probation and Parole “erred” when it reconsidered the crimes of two women by refusing to parole them after their life sentences were commuted in 2004 by then-Gov. Bob Holden.

The high court handed down its 6-1 decision Tuesday in the cases of Lynda Branch, 54, and Shirley Lute, 76, the oldest female inmate in Missouri.

The decision orders the board to decide the conditions of Lute’s parole and to determine Branch’s readiness to re-enter society. The board is not to reconsider the circumstances of either woman’s crime.

Lute was convicted in 1981 for the murder of her husband, who she said abused her. She was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Branch was also sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1986 for killing her husband, who she said was abusive.

Jane Aiken, Lute’s attorney, said Tuesday afternoon that she was ”thrilled” with the ruling. She said she had spoken to Lute and her daughters and that everyone was excited and relieved that the ordeal was finally over. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like after 29 years” — the amount of time Lute has served — Aiken said.

Lute is entitled to release and is now just waiting on a hearing to determine the conditions of her parole, Aiken said.

Mary Beck, Branch’s attorney, said Branch couldn’t hold back tears when she received the good news from one of the MU School of Law students who worked on her case. “This is huge for her,” Beck said, adding that she spoke to Branch multiple times in the few hours after the decision.

In late 2004, Lute and Branch received commutations of their life sentences — from life without parole to life with parole — from Holden. Both women expected to be out of prison within a few weeks.

But their parole hearings were postponed until June 2005, six months later.

But both women were denied parole because the board said their release would depreciate the seriousness of the offenses. Lute was told to come back for reconsideration in June 2007, Branch in June 2008.

Attorneys for both women challenged the denials and argued before the Missouri Supreme Court last month, saying that Holden did not intend for the board to review the circumstances of the crimes when he granted commutations. They also argued that the parole board’s denial based on the nature of the crimes was inappropriate.

Holden submitted affidavits to the court clarifying his intent.

“Any doubt regarding the governor’s intent is resolved by his sworn affidavits, in which he stated that he did not intend the board to use the factors he already had considered as bases for denying them parole,” the court’s decision stated.

The women’s quest for parole began, when the Missouri Clemency Coalition — a project of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence and all four law schools in Missouri — picked the cases of 11 women on whose behalf they would fight for clemency.

Branch has been given a new parole hearing, and this time the board will be prohibited from looking at the circumstances of the crime. Instead, it will evaluate her conduct in prison.

Beck said the few prison violations Branch has received are minor and shouldn’t keep her in prison. One of them was for stepping up onto a chair to re-hang a curtain, and another was for oversleeping when her alarm clock did not go off.

“This is not the kind of prison conduct to suggest that she’s a threat to society,” Beck said.

The court will officially order the Missouri Department of Corrections to schedule the women’s parole hearings after the allotted time that allows parties to file for re-hearings expires on Monday. The court may then give the parole board a deadline for the new hearings. If it doesn’t, the parole board will be able to use its discretion in interpreting the order to “promptly conduct a parole hearing.”

Either way, Beck said she was happy that the court looked at all of the facts of the women’s cases.

“These women were tortured,” Beck said, referring to the abuse from their husbands. “And the criminal justice system has not treated them very well.”

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