Clemency coalition seeks freedom for 14 women - KCTV5

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Clemency coalition seeks freedom for 14 women

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Donna Biernacki is serving a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder. Kimberly Hennessey is serving 27 years for first-degree murder. Donna Biernacki is serving a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder. Kimberly Hennessey is serving 27 years for first-degree murder.
ST. LOUIS, MO (KCTV/AP) -

A former governor and retired state appellate judge are part of a new coalition of Missouri lawyers and law professors and students asking Gov. Jay Nixon to commute the prison sentences of 14 women, most of whom the group says were victims of domestic abuse.

The Community Coalition for Clemency, which includes former Gov. Bob Holden and former Missouri Court of Appeals Judge James R. Dowd, made its public appeal Tuesday at a news conference at the Saint Louis University School of Law. The announcement coincides with Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Group members said the women received sentences disproportionate to their crimes, and in some cases more severe than those received by men convicted of similar offenses. Four of the inmates are over 65, four have been imprisoned at least 25 years and eight are serving life sentences.

"I would like to speak today for women who have never had a voice. Society turned its back on them years ago," said Anne Geraghty-Rathert, a Webster University professor who oversees a legal clinic that represents three of the 14 women, each "having suffered severe physical, sexual and mental violence throughout their lives."

"They slipped through every possible crack," she said. "No one stepped in to intervene on their behalf. No neighbor, no teacher, no friend, no relative, no one."

Two of the women this includes are Kimberly Hennessey and Donna Biernacki who both killed their husbands and were both victims of abuse.

"The women in this coalition are willing to say, ‘I did something wrong, I did something terrible, but here's why I did it - because I was abused for 30 years.' ‘Here's why did it - this man threatened to kill my children,'" said St. Louis University Law Professor John Ammann.

He along with others with the coalition argued that, today, sentences like Biernacki's would have been much less considering her extensive history of domestic abuse.

"There are many of these women, if the whole story had come out and they were charged with these crimes today, some of these women would not have been charged. Another level would not have been convicted," Ammann said.

Biernacki's parents George and Jeana-Marie Gergely, along with Hennessey's father Bob Hennessey, attended Tuesday's coalition announcement asking Nixon to grant clemency to their daughters. They say it's their plea for mercy.

"I can't express enough my appreciation for this. It's just unbelievable," George Gergely said. "It will give them hope that maybe somebody has heart on the outside. In this case we hope it's the governor."

Nixon, who as attorney general spent 16 years as Missouri's top prosecutor, has granted just one clemency request since taking office in 2009. That's by far the fewest among Missouri's previous six governors, regardless of party affiliation.

Former Republican governors John Ashcroft and Matt Blunt commuted the prison sentences or pardoned 30 and 16 inmates while in office for eight and four years, respectively. Nixon's past three predecessors as Democratic chief executives - Mel Carnahan, Roger Wilson and Holden - approved early release for between 32 and 45 inmates each. Holden did not attend Tuesday's news conference.

Coalition members repeatedly asked Nixon to "show mercy," though several later suggested that his possible interest in national office after his second term as governor expires in two years could make such a gesture politically risky. A Nixon spokesman did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment.

Dowd criticized the state's explosive growth in its prison population from an estimated 5,000 inmates when he joined the appellate court to more than 30,000 today.

"Every one of these women (are) serving excessive sentences under any evidence-based analysis," said Dowd, a St. Louis lawyer who spent 23 years on the appeals court before retiring from the bench in 2002. "That's why we ask the governor to employ this extraordinary constitutional authority .... to employ that level of mercy that we believe the people of Missouri would show to these women."

Donna Biernacki is serving a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder.

Kimberly Hennessey is serving 27 years for first-degree murder.

Many members of the new group led an earlier effort to change state law by making it easier for offenders who had killed their spouses gain parole if they had served at least 15 years in prison, had no prior felony convictions and had a history of significant physical abuse or sexual domestic violence not presented at trial. That led to the release of 11 women.

Copyright 2014 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) and The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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