Letters of Support: Judge Jack McDonald (Retired)
Circuit Judge John James McDonald (retired)
PO Box 363
Grand Haven, MI 49417
Email: [email protected]
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 protected]
Judge John James McDonald
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.