Two Missouri women win their freedom from prison

Tuesday, May 1, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:58 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Lynda Branch, 54, was granted parole on Monday.

If the wheels turn quickly enough, Lynda Branch could receive a Mother’s Day gift she never expected to get: the freedom to go home.

Branch, who on May 16 will have been in prison for 21 years for killing her abusive husband, won the right Monday to be paroled from prison — but she may not have to mark that grim anniversary.

“It all came as a shock,” Branch said. “When (the parole officer) handed me the papers, she told me that she would let me digest that information. I threw the paper up in the air and screamed, ‘Oh my God!’”

On April 17, the state Supreme Court ordered Shirley Lute, who was also convicted of killing her abusive husband, to be freed, and told the state parole board to consider whether Branch should also be released. The court said the board could not consider the circumstances of their crimes, but could only look at their conduct in prison and their readiness to re-enter society.

After the women’s hearings Monday, the parole board decided both women should be released as soon as possible, Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Hauswirth said. He estimated it could take three to five days to complete the paperwork necessary for their release.

The parole board will review both Branch’s and Lute’s home plans, and then both will be released, Branch said.

Both women, who have been serving life sentences in prison in Chillicothe, plan to live with their daughters.

Branch said that as part of the terms of her parole, she will be placed on house arrest for up to four months and will not be allowed to contact any member of her deceased husband’s family.

Lute, 76, has been imprisoned since 1981, when she was convicted of aiding her son in the Monroe County murder of her husband, Melvin Lute, whom she claims physically tortured and mentally tormented her.

Branch, 54, was convicted of fatally shooting her husband, Raymond, in 1986 at their Cole County home. Branch contends she got control of the gun only after her husband first threatened to shoot her and her daughter.

Former Gov. Bob Holden commuted Lute and Branch’s sentences in late 2004, just before leaving office. But the two have remained behind bars because the parole board voted to deny them parole. The board said releasing them “would depreciate the seriousness” of their crimes. Holden did not shorten their sentences to time already served, as he could have, prompting their attorneys to ask the state’s highest court to set them free.

Branch said once she’s released, she wants to become a paralegal, volunteer at a battered women’s shelter and talk to high school students about domestic abuse.

“I want to be known for more than just being in prison,” she said. “I want the rest of my life to be about helping others so I don’t feel like the last 21 years was a waste.”

Both women’s cases were taken up by the Missouri Battered Women’s Clemency Coalition, a group that includes professors and students at the state’s four law schools. After hearing Monday’s news, Mary Beck, a professor at the MU School of Law and Branch’s attorney for almost nine years, said she just wanted to give Branch a hug.

“People don’t realize how important their freedom is until they lose it. And mine means everything to me,” Branch said. “I’ve fought too hard for my freedom, and I’m not going to mess it up or let anyone else mess it up.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this story

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