Advocates for victims of domestic violence are working on a project that seeks to reduce the prison terms of women who committed crimes in cooperation with abusive partners. Laurie Schipper at the Iowa Coalition against Domestic Violence says they hope the “Skylark Project” can use a modern understanding of domestic violence to sway the parole board and the governor in favor of women who’ve already served years in jail.
Schipper says all the candidates based on past interactions with the criminal were all terrified that they would be hurt or killed if they didn’t do what he had said. She says they had been conditioned to say everything the man said to do or there would be consequences, and they were far more afraid of him than of the criminal justice system.
One example is 51-year-old Susan Ross who is serving a 100-year sentence for helping her husband Anthony hide evidence after he shot and killed an acquaintance in the basement of their Des Moines home six years ago. Ross said she wanted to call police, but was afraid of what her husband would do to her.
“Anthony said ‘no we can’t call the police’. And he told me that I had to come down and help him clean up. I didn’t stop to analyze it. I just knew from past experiences that if I didn’t do what he wanted or what he said, then there would be hell to pay. So I helped him finish cleaning up,” Ross says. Ross admits she’s guilty of destroying evidence in a homicide. But advocates for battered women say the guilt of women like Susan Ross is not that cut and dried.
The coalition selected five candidates at Mitchellville that they say can articulate clearly the link between her abuse and her complicity in the crime. And each woman must have served a significant portion of her sentence to show the parole board she’s already paid a price. University of Iowa law professor Linda McGuire says many women in prison today went to jail at a time when the psychology of domestic violence was not on the radar of judges and attorneys the way it is now.
McGuire says: “We’re now using that increasing sophisticated understanding to apply to all sorts of crimes. These that are class A felonies in Iowa, but even cashing the check for example in a financial crime. Well, was she threatened that if she didn’t do that that she was going to be beaten.” The case of Dixie Shanahan, a woman who made headlines in Iowa when she killed her abusive husband and hid his body in the couple’s Shelby county home, got Schipper involved in the issue.
Governor Vilsack granted a commutation of Shanahan’s 50 year sentence. U-I law school students and recent graduates are coaching the women, but Schipper says they know it can be a long hard process. “ The standards of the parole board and the governor are very high, for the good of the safety of the public,” Schipper says. In fact, Skylark’s first candidate, a woman serving life without parole for first degree murder, did not succeed. In denying commutation, Governor Culver cited the serious nature of her crime.
Now advocates are awaiting the governor’s decision on a second candidate, another lifer. In her case, the parole board unanimously recommended that the governor commute the sentence. By comparison, a pioneering program similar to Skylark has been in place in Michigan for nearly 20 years. Only this year did any inmates get their sentences reduced.