Nancy Seaman is serving a life without parole sentence at Huron Valley in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for killing her husband in self-defense in 2004. Three judges support the former teacher’s case for clemency, with two overturning her conviction because the jury had insufficient evidence.
Legendary civil rights attorney Dean Robb has been practicing law since 1949 and won an acquittal for his client Jeanette Smith in 1978 after she killed her abusive husband in self-defense. Robb learned of battered women’s syndrome at that time and said Michigan has made little progress in the last 40 years. Hear his important words in this three minute video interview.
Let’s make sure Michigan women who are abused in their homes are not abused again in our courts. We need your help to make these important changes in our state.
We need you to join our advocacy efforts by writing your legislator to change an archaic ruling in Michigan, People v Christel, so battered women are no longer incarcerated for defending their lives.
Letters of Support
As a licensed psychologist formerly employed by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), I felt compelled to write and express my professional opinion about a Michigan law which has had a detrimental effect on the trial outcomes for battered women who have killed their abusers in what they believed was an act of lawful self-defense.
During my career as a psychologist, I’ve had over 20 years experience in the field of domestic violence. In the year 2000, I was hired by the MDOC to initiate a domestic violence program for the women at Robert Scott Correctional Facility and prior to that, I’ve spent 8 years co-leading a program that treated men who were abusive to women.
During my career, I have witnessed how limitations on expert witness trial testimony, pursuant to Michigan law created by judicial decision in the 1995 case People v Christel, 449 Mich 537 (1995) has denied battered women defendants a defense that includes the reality of the domestic violence they have suffered. Testimony from credible experts in the field of domestic violence who might be able to explain experiences of battering as they specifically relate to a defendant and the facts in the case is not only relevant but essential for a fair and just determination of guilt or innocence.
Michigan law had denied juries this critical evidence.
I am particularly concerned about the effect this restrictive law has had in the 2004 high profile trial of Nancy Seaman was who convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the homicide of her abusive husband. The verdict in her case has since been overturned twice on appeal by state trial Judge John McDonald and Federal Judge Bernard Friedman who have determined that the verdict was not supported by the evidence and the omission of critical Battered Woman Syndrome evidence denied her a fair trial. I concur with their assessment and attempts to rectify the injustice in this case.
Inmate Seaman came to my attention shortly after her arrival at Robert Scott Correctional Facility because of reports and referrals that citied severe PTSD symptoms. I subsequently had a number of private and group therapy sessions with Ms. Seaman. It is without question in my mind that Ms. Seaman suffered physical abuse at the hands of her husband and learned the typical coping skills of an abused woman to make sure no one would know or guess she was being abused. She learned to clean up the aftermath of her husband’s abuse, appear calm during turmoil, and suppress her emotions and tears.
In my professional opinion, violence was not natural to Ms. Seaman’s personality and the violent act that occurred in response to her husband’s final attack on her life was related to her history of abuse.
Prior incidents of abuse she endured in her 31 year marriage affected her perception of imminent danger on the morning her husband assaulted her. In my clinical experiences with victims of battering, Ms. Seaman’s act of violence in response to her husband’s assault was not different from a well-established pattern of behavior abused people exhibit when they are confronted by their abusers.
Ms. Seaman’s behavior of cleaning up the crime scene and acting as though nothing happened was consistent with her behavior throughout her marriage in response to her husband’s battering, and that behavior is not unusual for battered women in similar cases.
That very behavior that made Ms. Seaman look so guilty to the uniformed laypersons on her jury is in fact predictable behavior to those who understand the dynamics of domestic violence.
Because of Michigan law which restricted the testimony of Ms. Seaman’s expert witness to a mere description of Battered Woman Syndrome and nothing more, the jury was denied all this evidence that was critical to support Ms. Seaman’s claim of self-defense and for defending against the charge of premeditation brought against her. Michigan law placed an impermissible blanket of exclusion on a category of BWS behavior evidence that was essential for the jury’s understanding of how long-term battering affected Nancy Seaman’s state of mind and behaviors.
One need only look at the outcome in Nancy Seaman’s trial to understand the disparity in treatment battered women defendants in Michigan face as compared to similarly situation defendants in states that do not limit expert testimony. The differences are significant.
What would have likely been no more than a manslaughter charge in other states based on the documented face-to-face confrontation and defensive injuries on Ms. Seaman’s body would have allowed Ms. Seaman to eventually return to society is instead a first degree murder conviction and life imprisonment here in Michigan. This outcome is unconscionable and is the consequences of Michigan law which denied battered women the constitutional right to present BWS expert testimony critical to their defense.
I implore you to draft legislation to rectify this injustice to battered women. Preferably one that would model that of California Senate Bill No.1385 (Burton,2004),which commuted the sentences and freed hundreds of women from prison and allowed testimony on battered women’s syndrome during new trials for countless other women.
I encourage you to contact Executive Director Kelle Lynn of Justice Thru Storytelling at firstname.lastname@example.org or cell # 832.215.0030 should you care to continue further discussion on how to advocate for a grant of commutation to spare Nancy Seaman’s life.
Justice delayed for battered women like Nancy Seaman is justice denied. Please answer this call to action.
Nels Thompson M.S., L.L.P
Circuit Judge John James McDonald (retired)
PO Box 363
Grand Haven, MI 49417
September 5, 2018
Re: People v Christel, 449 Mich 537 (1995)
Nancy Seaman #520695
Incarcerated since 2004
To: The Honorable _________________________________________
State Representative or State Senator
By way of introduction, I am the trial judge who presided over Ms. Nancy Seaman’s 2004 high profile first degree murder trial for the homicide of her abusive husband. In 2005, I overturned that verdict and ordered re-sentencing on a lesser charge. In my 17 years as a Circuit Court judge, I have never reversed or reduced a jury verdict. Nancy Seaman’s case was the exception.
My greatest concern was the fact that Michigan law, which severely limited the trial testimony of her expert witness, denied Ms. Seaman’s jury the critical Battered Woman Syndrome evidence necessary for a fair and just determination of her guilt or innocence.
This letter is a call to action for legislative change in this law which impedes a battered woman defendant’s constitutional right to offer the testimony of witnesses to establish a defense and defend against the charges brought against her.
Michigan law, pursuant to a 1995 decision in People v Christel, 449 Mich 537 (1995) limits expert witness testimony in battered women cases to a generic explanation of Battered Woman Syndrome and nothing more. This law prohibited Dr. Lenore Walker, the foremost authority on Battered Woman Syndrome and Seaman’s expert witness, from presenting a clinical diagnosis that Nancy Seaman was a “battered woman”. Dr. Walker was not allowed to connect the Syndrome to the specific facts of the case or explain how long-term battering affected Nancy Seaman’s state of mind, perception of imminent danger on the morning her husband assaulted her, or behavior before and after the homicide which the jury likely found irrational or incomprehensible.
Prevailing cognitive research documents that juries cannot make sense of the evidence without these connections from an expert. The success of Ms. Seaman’s defense depended almost entirely on the jury’s ability to assess her conduct in the context of Battered Woman Syndrome. Without this evidence, the defense was unable to counter the prosecution’s claim of premeditation or dispel the myths, misconceptions, and stereotypes that the average layperson on a jury continues to have about victims of domestic violence.
Unaware of limitations on the expert’s testimony, the jury drew negative inferences from the expert’s silence on these issues leaving the jury to assume Ms. Seaman’s behavior were indicative of guilt.
I’m convinced that if the jury had heard the omitted testimony, they would never have returned a verdict of first degree murder. Judge Bernard Friedman of the Eastern District Federal Court reached the same conclusion in his 2010 appellate decision which overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial. Judge Friedman stated, “In a case where the scales are so closely balanced” there is “a reasonable probability that at least one juror would have struck a different balance had that testimony been presented.”
Both Ms. Seaman’s appellate wins were reversed upon the prosecutor’s appeals, denying her any relief from judgment. Now only a grant of commutation from Governor Snyder will grant her freedom.
In a post-conviction letter, Dr. Lenore Walker, who had testified in over 500 trials across this country before the Seaman trial, was surprised by Michigan’s severe restrictions on her testimony and expressed concern about its impact in the Seaman trial. She stated, “My testimony was so limited that I was unable to explain issues that are critical for juries to hear in order to fairly come to a just decision. If I had been permitted, I would have testified that in my professional opinion, Ms. Seaman was a battered woman in her relationship with her husband and she had a reasonable perception of imminent danger to herself at the time she killed her husband.”
To fully understand the impact of Michigan’s severe limitations on expert testimony, one need only look at the disparity in treatment battered women in Michigan receive as compared to the women in states which do not limit expert testimony. The differences in conviction rates and severity of sentences are significant.
In 2005, a similar law in California which restricted Battered Woman Syndrome evidence was changed to Senate Bill No. 1385 (2004) and this paved the way for those women to receive new trials, re-sentencing, or commutations. Legislative change can achieve the same outcome for Michigan women.
Before this domestic violence tragedy, Nancy Seaman was a law-abiding citizen with no criminal record, devoted wife of 31 years, loving mother of two sons, and award-winning school teacher. She is not a danger to society and should not spend the rest of her life in prison.
You may already be aware of my efforts to rectify the injustice in her case from the April 26, 2018 NBC News article entitled, “The Judge Who Sentenced Nancy Seaman For Murder Now Wants to Set her Free”, as well as my May 11th appearance on the NBC Megyn Kelly TODAY show, and the May 14th interview with Ashleigh Banfield on Headline News.
The Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project and the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence is also supportive of these efforts.
Taxpayers bear the burden for an injustice such as this. At a cost of approximately $36,000 a year, over $500,000 has been spent to incarcerate Ms. Seaman these past 14 years – over $150,000 more than if she had been re-sentenced to a lesser charge in 2005 as I ordered.
The total cost to taxpayers will exceed one million dollars if Ms. Seaman remains incarcerated until death. That’s an exorbitant amount of taxpayer money spent to incarcerate a 66-year-old woman in a case where the verdict has been overturned twice and where former MDOC prison psychologist Nels Thompson has stated, “Nancy Seaman is a non-violent person who, if released from prison, would pose no threat of violence to the community. She would be a responsible, productive citizen.”
A watchful public is attuned to issues involving the abuse of women, discrimination of marginalized groups in our society, and injustices in the criminal justice system and they are looking to elected officials to take the necessary action to rectify injustices wherever they are found.
I welcome an opportunity to talk with you about initiating legislative change in this law and discuss ways in which you can help support Nancy Seaman’s commutation effort.
Please contact my team member and Executive Director Kelle Lynn who founded the 501c3 nonprofit Justice Thru Storytelling at jtsadvocates.com to support efforts to change Michigan law and advocate for a grant of commutation in Nancy Seaman’s case. You may contact her directly for any support information you require at cell phone 832.215.0030 or email at email@example.com.
Judge John James McDonald
September 5, 2018
RE: People v. Christel, 449 Mich 537 (1995)
Nancy Seaman #520695
Incarcerated since 2004
As a judge who has served on the Sixth Circuit court in Michigan for four years, I’m writing to express my professional opinion about a Michigan law which significantly impedes a battered woman defendant’s constitutional right to present Battered Woman Syndrome evidence at trial which is critical to her defense.
In the interests of justice, I am recommending that you initiate legislation to change this law as the State of California did in California Senate Bill No. 1385 (Burton, 2004) which commuted the sentences and freed hundreds of women from prison and allowed testimony on battered women’s syndrome during new trials for countless other women.
It is unusual for a judge to advocate for the governor to commute the sentence of a prisoner, but in the 2004 case of Nancy Seaman who was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment for the homicide of her abusive husband, I feel compelled to do so. My concern about the outcome of this case was the fact that Michigan law had severely limited the trial testimony of her expert witness, denying Ms. Seaman the evidence she needed to defuse against charges brought against her.
It has been over two decades since the Michigan Supreme Court held in People v Wilson (1992) that expert testimony on Battered Woman Syndrome is relevant and admissible in cases where domestic violence was a factor in the commission of an offense. However, that Court subsequently imposed severe limitation on that expert testimony, pursuant to People v Christel (1995).
As a result of this law, the trial testimony of Nancy Seaman’s expert witness, Dr. Lenore Walker, was limited to only a general explanation of Battered Woman Syndrome. Dr. Walker was prohibited from presenting her clinical diagnosis that Ms. Seaman was a “battered woman” and she was not allowed to link the Syndrome to the specific facts of Seaman’s case. This omitted testimony was essential for the jury’s understanding of how Nancy Seaman, who the jury viewed as competent in her career as a school teacher, was in fact a “battered woman” whose state of mind and behaviors were significantly affected by 31 years of domestic abuse.
Only a qualified expert could explain how years of abuse colored the lens through which Ms. Seaman assessed the threat of danger to herself on the morning her husband assaulted her. This evidence was critical for supporting her claim of self defense and for defending against the charge of premeditation brought against her. Michigan law denied the jury this evidence.
As Federal Judge Bernard Friedman opined in 2010 when he overturned the verdict, “The jury was left to assess Seaman’s actions without the benefit of Dr. Walker’s testimony evaluating her conduct in the context of Battered Woman Syndrome. Many of Seaman’s actions were likely difficult for jurors to understand without specific expert testimony.”
The federal court ruled that Ms. Seaman was prejudiced as a result and I concur with that assessment.
Unreasonable restrictions on the right to present witnesses in one’s defense not only compromise the right to a fair trial, but undermine the reliability of any verdict rendered at such a trial. Michigan law is contrary to U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence on a defendant’s right to a complete defense. As that Court stated in Rock v Arkansas, “A state may not apply a rule of evidence that permits a witness to take the stand, but then arbitrarily excludes material portions of that testimony.”
Battered women in Michigan already face many hurdles of inequality in the criminal justice system. Statistics show that victims of domestic violence receive higher convictions rates and longer prison sentences than all others charged with homicide, including those with previous violent criminal records. Under such circumstances, it is imperative that Michigan law not be allowed to further impede a battered woman’s right to due process.
In an attempt to rectify the injustice in Nancy Seaman’s case, both trial Judge John McDonald and federal Judge Bernard Friedman overturned the verdict in her case, and I agree with those rulings.
The prosecutor’s appeals which reversed these appellate decisions have denied Ms. Seaman the relief from judgment the courts have ruled is appropriate and this is an unconscionable outcome.
It is my sincerest hope that you will initiate legislation to change this restrictive evidentiary law that denied Michigan battered women the right to a complete defense.
More information on this nationwide campaign can be found on the website of Justice Thru Storytelling at jtsadvocates.com. Please contact Kelle Lynn, Executive Director of JTS at cell phone 832.215.0030 for any additional information or to schedule a meeting for further discussion.
Norman L. Lippitt
The “Double Injustice to Women” Campaign
The “double injustice” stands for women who are being threatened and terrorized in their own home, then end up being treated unfairly and with great disparity in the criminal justice system.
The #MeToo movement has recognized the voices of women all over the world, but incarcerated women have been mostly forgotten behind prison walls.
The goal of this campaign is to convince our legislators in the state of Michigan to change People v. Christel to model the California law in order to bring #Justice4Women. The added value to Michigan taxpayers is significant since battered women behind bars cost a minimum of $36,000 a year per inmate.
Justice Thru Storytelling helps these women tell their stories, both while they are incarcerated and when they are released.
Through the use of email, letter-writing and prison visits with the women, we give them voices beyond prison walls to share their experiences with the Michigan Parole Board and Governor Rick Snyder. We undertake letter-writing campaigns to help governmental and law enforcement officials understand domestic violence, its consequences for women and families, and the extenuating circumstances that are often overlooked in such cases.
The video clips with former judges and Carol Jacobsen, director of the Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, are good examples of our advocacy for incarcerated women who have been victims of domestic violence.
JTS welcomes your support. We always appreciate monetary donations to our 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization, but we also need your activism. Your short letter to elected and law-enforcement officials can be powerful and effective.
If you want to write on your own on behalf of imprisoned victims of domestic violence in Michigan, here are addresses.
Clemency for Nancy Seaman
Nancy Seaman acted in self-defense. She had no other choice at the time. Her verdict was overturned by the state court in 2005 and by the federal court in 2010. She has the support of three judges! We urge you to set her free.
We are petitioning Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to grant clemency for NANCY SEAMAN. She has been in prison since 2004 and is 66 years old.
Nancy killed her abusive husband in self-defense when he attacked her because she was leaving him. Her trial judge, Honorable Jack McDonald, overturned her conviction in 2005 because the jury had insufficient evidence. Federal Honorable Judge Bernard Friedman also overturned the verdict in 2010. She still remains behind bars. Only the governor can release her. Demand she receive clemency.
Letters of Support
Letter to Governor Snyder from former Judge Jack McDonald
Letter to Governor Snyder from former Judge Norman Lippitt
Letter to Governor Snyder from United States District Judge Bernard A.Friedman
Letter to Governor Snyder from former Judge Barry Howard
Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project Letter
Nancy Seaman Responds to Joyce Maynard’s “True Crime” Book.
Seaman Letter to First Lady Sue Snyder
Dr. Lenore Walker – Nationwide Expert on Domestic Violence
Circuit Judge Mester letter for Seaman commutation
Nancy Seaman Letter To Govenor
Nancy Seaman 2018 Commutation Support Letter
OP-ed Clemency for Seaman by Kelle Lynn
Letter to the Parole Board – Clemency for Seaman
Former Mayor Pat Hardy 2016 Letter to Governor Snyder
Attorney Lawrence Kaluzny – Clemency for Seaman
Nels Thompson letter to Snyder for Nancy Seaman
Judge Jack McDonald 2017 Letter to Governor Snyder – Clemency for Seaman
On March 11, 1987, Karen Kantzler accidentally killed her abusive husband, Dr. Paul Kantzler, while he slept with a gun next to him. He had threatened to kill her on several occasions. Karen’s original trial judge, Norman Lippitt, never intended that she would be behind bars 30 years later and has remained steadfast in advocating for her release. His successor judge, Barry Howard, reversed Karen’s sentence with time served. Both judges attended Karen’s public hearing on October 12, 2017, advocating to the Parole Board and Assistant Attorney General for her release from prison.
Jenny Baka suffered severe domestic violence for three years by her boyfriend, who then set her up to be in his parents’ home when he murdered them. She testified against him and was put into the witness protection program. Her court-appointed attorney told her she should plead guilty to second-degree murder. At 22 years old, she was sentenced to 26-50 years.