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Missouri Parole Board May Not Use Facts of Crime Already Considered by Governor in Clemency Approval to Deny Parole

The Missouri Supreme Court issued a peremptory writ of mandamus to the state parole board ordering new parole hearings for two life prisoners, and constraining the board from considering the facts of the prisoners’ crimes in its decisions.

Shirley Lute and Lynda Branch were each sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 50 years for the first-degree murders of their abusive husbands in 1978 and 1986. Both had clean prison records; Lute, at age 76, was the oldest woman in the Missouri prison system. In 2004, then-Governor Bob Holden commuted their sentences to make them “eligible for parole consideration.”

In his clemency opinions, Governor Holden expressly considered the facts involved in the crimes, both as to spousal abuse and as to how the murders were committed. The Missouri Board of Probation and Parole then considered, but denied (until 2008) parole for both Branch and Lute. The Board reasoned that spousal abuse had already been factored in during their convictions and that the nature of the crimes themselves argued against parole. Both women filed writs of habeas corpus with the state Supreme Court.

The Court focused on the interplay between clemency and parole proceedings. In this case clemency came first, in the form of a written opinion wherein the Governor based his grant of clemency expressly upon consideration of both women’s histories of spousal abuse and the facts of their crimes. Finding for both women, Governor Holden ordered that parole hearings be promptly conducted. The Board then reconsidered the same spousal abuse and crime factors, but held them against the women prisoners. The question for the Court was whether the Board was bound by the Governor’s earlier findings when he granted clemency.

The Missouri Constitution, Art. IV, Sec. 7 gives the governor the power to commute and pardon criminal convictions. Clemency rulings are accompanied by a statement of intent. The Board must follow the governor’s orders, the Court held. In Lute’s case, Governor Holden gave the Court an affidavit stating, “This denial of her parole by the Board was inconsistent with my clear intent as I had already given detailed consideration of the circumstances of the offense. I considered her ... inadequate defense, the lack of knowledge at the time of Battered Women’s Syndrome, the length of time she had spent in prison, her exemplary behavior while incarcerated, her age and health, and the fact that [she] had served the retributive and deterrent portion of her sentence.” In his affidavit for Branch, the Governor stated, “When determining whether or not Lynda Branch should be released on parole, I did not intend that the Board would reexamine the same factors as I did when granting her clemency.”

From these affidavits, the Court concluded that the Governor plainly did not intend for the Board to revisit those same factors for the purpose of denying parole. To ignore the Governor’s express intent would derogate his constitutional authority under Art. IV, Sec. 7. Accordingly, the Court construed the habeas petitions as sounding in mandamus, and ordered the Board to promptly conduct new hearings wherein they may “not re-consider any of those factors attested to by the Governor in his affidavit.”

Lute was represented by Jane Aiken, while Branch was represented by Mary Beck. They, in turn, were supported by the Missouri Battered Women’s Clemency Coalition, which included all four law schools in Missouri. See: State ex rel. Lute v. Missouri Board of Probation and Parole, 218 S.W.3d 431 (Mo. 2007).

Both Shirley Lute and Lynda Branch were released on parole in May 2007; they had both served over two decades in prison.

Additional source: Kansas City Daily Record

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Related legal case

State ex rel. Lute v. Missouri Board of Probation and Parole