JTS Founder’s message at “OUTCRY for Justice” to give #Justice4Women
The founder of Justice Thru Storytelling, Kelle Lynn, carried the “Double Injustice to Women” message to fellow advocates and lawmakers at the National Day of Empathy in Lansing on March 5.
Read her speech below which includes comments from Chief Justice Bridget McCormack and Prosecutor D.J. Hilson, who is the president of PAAM.
In October 2017, the #MeToo movement thrust women’s voices and stories of sexual assault and harassment into the spotlight. Women no longer felt so alone as they began to open up to one another on social media and declare, “This happened to me, too, and I’ve suffered in silence this whole time.” In many ways, life for women just started to change for the better.
But we’ve only just begun.
Because there’s a group of women who have been completely forgotten. Their voices are stifled by prison walls and barbed-wired fences. These women have suffered the double injustice of living like prisoners in their own homes, affected by intimate-partner violence in ways that required them to defend their own lives and many times the lives of their children.
When they struck back at their abusers in acts of self-defense, they ended up in a criminal justice system that either didn’t believe their claims of abuse or painted a picture to make them look like cold-blooded murderers…a system that remains ignorant of how these women were just trying to survive. The stigmatization of these women is a constant fight because, as many would say, they are in prison because they DESERVE to be. They must have done something wrong or they wouldn’t be in prison.
We’re ALL here because we know that’s not true! We’re here today to make positive changes on behalf of our criminal justice system, to right the wrongs, to open the eyes and hearts of those who can bring justice where it’s deserved.
As the founder of Justice Thru Storytelling, I am here to give a voice to the women who are incarcerated at the women’s prison in Ypsilanti for the double injustice they endured because of intimate-partner violence.
Our efforts are specifically focused on changing a 1995 Michigan ruling called People v Christel that severely limits expert testimony in Michigan courtrooms in cases of domestic violence.
First of all, I want to give a brief visual of what’s happening to women worldwide: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that an average of 137 women across the world are killed by a partner or family member every day. Their conclusion: “The home is the most likely place for a woman to be killed.” More than half of the 87,000 women killed in 2017 were reported to have died at the hands of those closest to them.
This has been an epidemic for years. Women are in a kill-or-be-killed situation, but our criminal justice system turns a blind eye and puts these women in prison when they strike back.
I’ve spent many hours visiting women in prison and learning from them. One of the things I heard over and over that has had a huge impact on me is this: If I had defended my life against a complete stranger, I would never have ended up in prison. But, because it was an intimate partner, I was NOT believed. I was blamed for not leaving even though it was impossible to do so. I was powerless over my abuser.
I’d like to share a brief story about a Michigan woman and her high-profile case in Oakland County. Her case highlighted the People v Christel ruling by bringing it and its unfairness into the spotlight.
In 2005, Oakland County Circuit Judge Jack McDonald had been serving as an elected judge for 12 years when he presided over the case of a woman who killed her husband of 31 years in an act of self-defense. Her husband learned she was secretly planning to leave him…a time when it’s most dangerous for a woman since the abuser is losing his control.
Unfortunately, the case was very high profile in the media with a number of distortions being printed. The prosecutor in this case took an aggressive stance and convinced a jury to sentence this woman to life in prison without parole.
But Judge McDonald had a conscience and couldn’t fathom this woman dying in prison. He knew there was no way she planned – premeditated -– to kill her husband. He had presided over many murder cases, sent people to prison, slept well at night, but this was one case that haunted him. So he made the bold decision to overturn the jury verdict.
Judge McDonald learned important facts from Dr. Lenore Walker, a nationwide expert on battered woman’s syndrome, who was in his courtroom to testify on behalf of this woman. But People v Christel put severe limitations of her testimony and what she could NOT tell the jury.
Dr. Walker stated, “I’ve testified in over 500 trials in 35 states and never has my testimony been so limited as in the state of Michigan.”
Fast forward five years. In 2010, Federal Judge Bernard Friedman reviewed all the evidence from Dr. Lenore Walker. He overturned the verdict as well and ordered that the woman have a new trial or be released from prison in 120 days. She’s 66 years old and still there.
To this day, Judge McDonald has been steadfast in his decision because he firmly believes the jury was never presented ALL the evidence because Dr. Walker could not educate them on battered women’s syndrome…something these jurors knew nothing about.
As McDonald stated, “Had the jurors been able to hear the information from Dr. Lenore Walker, it is a high probability they would never have sent her to prison for life and their verdict may have been manslaughter or self-defense.”
We focused our efforts to outgoing Governor Snyder last year with hopes he would give her clemency. In October, I hosted a Double Injustice to Women campaign event specifically to talk about women in prison for defending their lives and the People v Christel ruling.
We were honored to have Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack, who is now Chief Justice, come to the event specifically to educate people on the effects this ruling has in Michigan.
She explained to us that, as a judge, there is no choice but to follow this ruling and it’s completely up to our lawmakers to change it as other states have done.
When an attorney in the audience asked how we can help, Justice McCormack responded that we can collectively get this message out to our prosecutors. It’s imperative they have a better understanding of intimate partner violence.
We at Justice Thru Storytelling did just that. We immediately went to the president of PAAM, DJ Hilson, to discuss People v Christel. He connected us to PAAM’s Violence Against Women Resource Prosecutor to find out what PAAM offers its prosecutors about intimate partner violence training as well as to start a conversation about where we might be able to collaborate in a future training. In addition, Mr. Hilson agreed to have PAAM’s Legislative Committee review any legislative language expanding expert testimony in our Michigan courtrooms that is presented by this group and provide feedback.
Legendary civil rights attorney Dean Robb was quoted as saying, “Over 40 years ago, I represented a woman who killed her husband in self-defense and won an acquittal on her behalf. However, Michigan has made no progress in the last 40 years.” One of his final pleas to lawmakers is to stop cutting off the lifeline for these women and change People v Christel.
California did exactly what we are trying to do in Michigan and many women were freed from prison as a result of new legislation.
In January 2019, it was announced that outgoing Ohio Gov. Kasich granted clemency to a woman incarcerated for killing her abusive ex-boyfriend in 2005. The Ohio Parole Board recommended Gov. Kasich commute her sentence after it found evidence of battered woman’s syndrome was not presented at her trials as well as evidence that supported her claims her boyfriend had choked her, beaten her, and attacked her with a knife.
The Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project in Ann Arbor filed several commutations for women with similar cases. Many of the women have already served 30 years. The pleas fell on deaf ears and many remain incarcerated today.
It’s 2019…a new year with a new governor and we’re staying hopeful. But we need your help and support in drafting new legislation that can help these women get out of prison as well as pave the way to keep battered women from being charged and ending up there.
Imagine your own daughter, sister, mother, co-worker suffering in silence from intimate-partner abuse and the powerlessness they experience at home, let alone in our Michigan courts.
Let’s empower them today and let Michigan be known as a state that gives #Justice4Women.
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.