“This will be my grandson’s first Christmas,” said Barbara Sheehan, a 53-year-old from Queens, New York. Her grandson is 10 months old and just learning to stand. But Sheehan won’t be celebrating with him. Instead, she will spend the holiday at Albion Correctional Facility in upstate New York, forty-eight miles from the Canadian border. That is, unless New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo is struck by the holiday spirit and grants her clemency.
For twenty-five years, Sheehan was terrorized by her husband, Raymond. The terror included physical beatings and frequent threats to kill her and their two children. In February 2008, when her husband pointed a gun at her, Sheehan shot him first. Acquitted of murder, she was convicted of firearms possession and sentenced to five years in prison. Now she is petitioning for clemency.
State governors have the power to grant clemency to people in prison. Clemency can take the form of a pardon, which allows a conviction to be set aside, or a commutation, which allows a person to be considered for parole earlier than the date imposed by their sentence. Christmas is traditionally when governors demonstrate compassion by granting clemency to people whose cases or circumstances they find compelling—and many of the battered women behind bars have compelling cases. Many suffered years of escalating violence at the hands of their loved ones before the moment when it was kill or be killed. Then, they find themselves attacked by a legal system that questions, downplays or outright denies their experiences, the same system that often failed to come to their aid during those years of abuse. For all too many, the end of their partner abuse means the start of a lengthy prison sentence.
This year has seen heightened attention to domestic violence, sparked by the leaked video of football player Ray Rice knocking his fiancée, Janay, unconscious in an elevator and leading to reminders of the prevalence of domestic violence throughout the country. The high-profile case of Marissa Alexander, a Florida mother imprisoned for firing a warning shot to stop her husband’s assault, has further illustrated how the legal system continues to abuse women who have survived domestic violence. As the country begins to grapple with just how pervasive domestic abuse remains, and how inadequate the response by those in power, isn’t it time that governors show their compassion by granting clemency to battered women behind bars?
There is a history, if relatively brief and fragmented, of governors showing compassion to imprisoned domestic violence survivors. In the 1990s, thirty-four abuse survivors in California petitioned then-governor Pete Wilson for clemency. Wilson only granted clemency to three, but outside advocates organized to push for the release of other survivors through petitions for clemency, habeas corpus and parole changes. Since then, approximately fifty other women have gained their freedom through their efforts.