As featured on NBC, NPR, Megyn Kelly TODAY, and Ashleigh Banfield with Headline News, Justice Thru Storytelling (501c3) is committed to changing the narratives of women who are incarcerated or face imprisonment for defending themselves or their children from potentially deadly domestic violence.

Our focus is to change a longstanding Michigan ruling, People v Christel, that restricts expert testimony regarding battered spouse syndrome in trials of those accused of injuring or killing their abuser in self-defense. By changing the ruling to be more in keeping with a majority of other states, psychologists and other domestic violence experts will be able to testify on behalf of women in Michigan stand accused of crimes against their abuser.

Listen to:

  • Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack explain the state of this ruling in an effort to give people a better understanding of People v. Christel’s impact in Michigan.
  • Oakland County Circuit Judge John McDonald (retired) advocate for the release of a woman sentenced to LIFE in prison.
  • Michigan Department of Corrections psychologist Nels Thompson (retired) who believes these women should not be incarcerated.
  • Prosecuting Attorney and president of PAAM DJ Hilson explain intimate partner violence in the courtroom.
  • Legendary Civil Rights Attorney Dean Robb explain how People v Christel is cutting off the lifeline to these women having a fair defense.

Justice Thru Storytelling founder Kelle Lynn gives a voice to the women at Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, MI who are incarcerated for defending their lives against intimate partner violence. In 2018, she spearheaded the “Double Injustice to Women” campaign to ensure Michigan women who are abused in their homes are not abused again in our courts.

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.

We need your help to make these important changes in our state to obtain #Justice4Women.

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 kellelynn07@gmail.com 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.

Respectfully,

Nels Thompson M.S., L.L.P

Circuit Judge John James McDonald (retired)
PO Box 363
Grand Haven, MI 49417
Website: jtsadvocates.com
Email: contact@jtsadvocates.com

September 5, 2018

Honorable
Address
city/state/zip

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 kellelynn07@gmail.com.

Respectfully,

Judge John James McDonald

September 5, 2018

Hon.
Address
City/State/Zip

RE: People v. Christel, 449 Mich 537 (1995)
Nancy Seaman #520695
Incarcerated since 2004

Dear:

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.

Respectfully,

Norman L. Lippitt

Demand Justice

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.

We’ve written a message that you can use to Demand Justice of your legislators via the form below.
If you’d like to write your own message, here are some tips.

From Concerned People to the Legislators:

This is a call to action for legislative change in a Michigan ruling, People v Christel, 449 Mich 537 (1995) which unjustly denies battered women who have killed their abusers or committed a crime in an act of self-defense the Constitutional right to present expert testimony at trial that could effectively prove they acted in lawful self-defense.

Difficulties have arisen in the successful application of both self- and other defenses for battered women. First, both self-defense and insanity defense laws are problematic because they are discriminatory (Elizabeth M. Schneider, Battered Women and Feminist Lawmaking (2000). Second, juries (as well as judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys) have been found to hold a number of myths and misconceptions regarding battered women. Example: In People v Lekisha Hines (2009), the trial court was overturned on appeal for denying the defendant’s request for expert testimony on battering. The Michigan Court of Appeals thus acknowledged that the average juror does not possess the knowledge of battering and its effects. In light of these obstacles, expert witness testimony is needed to enable the jury to understand and evaluate the facts and reasons for the defendant’s fear and actions and to form their own opinions. It can help jurors consider a battered woman’s reactions and reconcile seemingly discrepant self-defense criteria in cases where they would not otherwise do so. (See Report Responding to Section 40507 of the Violence Against Women Act 3 (1996).

Michigan is one of only 20% of states that preclude expert witnesses from testifying that a defendant is a battered woman or is suffering from abuse that is linked to specific facts in the case which would explain the state of mind and behavior of the defendant to the jury. As a result of this limitation, many women who defended themselves against or because of abusers have been denied the right to an effective defense and were unjustly convicted of murder or other crimes.

A number of Michigan trial judges are currently advocating for a change in the law regarding expert testimony.

In the 2004 high profile case of Nancy Seaman, trial Judge John McDonald stated that he is convinced Ms. Seaman would not have been convicted of first degree murder if the jury had been allowed to hear relevant evidence of battering and its effects that was omitted from the testimony of nationwide expert Dr. Lenore Walker because of the People v Christel ruling. Dr. Lenore Walker stated that her testimony has never been so limited as in the state of Michigan. After Judge McDonald heard the complete testimony from Dr. Walker, he stated that he has no doubt the jury would have never convicted Ms. Seaman of first degree murder nor would she be serving a life sentence. Federal Judge Bernard Friedman heard the complete testimony of Dr. Lenore Walker in 2010 and reversed the sentence of Nancy Seaman.

In a 2018 case, Tina Talbot killed her husband in self-defense to save her life and the life of her seven-year-old son after she was severely tortured for a week. She was arrested on charges of domestic violence homicide. A 45-page report was provided by Holly Rosen, LMSW, MSU Safe Place Director, who concluded that a homicide took place solely based on the fact that Ms. Talbot could spare herself and her son from harm, and that she did not desire for her husband’s life to end this way. Ms. Talbot was in a kill-or-be-killed situation. Mr. Jerome Sabbota, the attorney representing Ms. Talbot, had to explain to Ms. Talbot that should her case go to trial, Ms. Rosen would only be able to educate the jurors on Battered Spouse Syndrome in general terms based on the limitations imposed on expert testimony by People v Christel. Further, the expert would not be able to specifically tie the facts of Ms. Talbot’s case to her mental state or actions, which had a high probability of leaving the jury with doubt and questions as to her motivation, putting her at risk for a harsher sentence. Had Ms. Rosen been able to fully explain the facts of the case to give the jurors a fuller understanding of Ms. Talbot’s kill-or-be-killed situation, there is a greater likelihood that the jury would have found her actions to be in self-defense and Ms. Talbot would not have been sentenced to prison for defending her life. Oakland County Circuit Judge Karen McDonald was familiar with every facet of Ms. Talbot’s case and publicly stated she would have never charged Ms. Talbot with open murder nor sentenced her to prison based on the fact that Ms. Talbot is not a criminal and was forced to defend her life and the life of her child. Judge McDonald is now running for Oakland County prosecutor in an effort to ensure people are given fair representation and that people suffering from intimate partner violence are treated with dignity in our court system.

Across the United States, laws are expanding toward more justice for battered women defendants. In California, SB 1385 (2002) allowed women convicted of killing their abusers to apply for release from their sentences. In 2005, the law was expanded to include other crimes by survivors who could show their legal defense would have been bolstered by evidence of battering. In 2006, jury instructions were added in cases involving battered women defendants stating the court has a sua sponte duty to include instructions to the jury to consider evidence of self-defense if a defendant believed that s/he needed to act in self-defense or out of fear, and if a person in a similar situation with similar knowledge would believe the same. In 2019, two laws further extended options for battered women prisoners: the first allows battered women to challenge their incarceration if their original trial had limited expert testimony about abuse; and the second requires the parole board to accept and seriously consider evidence of abuse during parole hearings.

In Illinois, a 2016 law was passed directing judges to consider the role of abuse during sentencing, and allowing imprisoned survivors to petition for resentencing if evidence of abuse was not presented during sentencing.

In 2019, New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act expanding judicial discretion in cases involving domestic violence survivors who were convicted of crimes related to the abuse they suffered.

Please support legislation to change the unjust ruling in People v Christel which severely limits the rights of battered women defendants and provide for retroactive relief to those battered women who were wrongfully convicted and are serving harsh sentences behind bars.

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.

Nancy SeamanWe 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.

Survivors

Nancy Seaman

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.

Karen Kantzler

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

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.