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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Forgotten Survivors

May 18, 2018

ANN ARBOR – Carol Jacobsen has had a wonderful life full of recognition and renown. Melissa Chapman and Melissa Swiney have had dreadful lives scarred by fear, violence and death, and have spent more than half their lives in prison.

Jacobsen, a professor in the School of Art and Design is an award-winning social documentary artist whose photographs, videos and films have been shown on four contents.

Yet she is devoting much of her time these days to try to get justice for the Melissas — and for six other battered women who she believes don’t belong in prison, if indeed they ever did.

“These women aren’t any threat to society,” she said. “They defended themselves against abusers.

Many of them had inadequate legal representation. They deserve better.”

Getting freedom for them has become close to her main focus in life. Today, Jacobsen is director of the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, which seeks clemency for women who their research shows were unjustly jailed and sentenced.

She isn’t a starry-eyed Pollyanna; she told me, “I know there are some women who regretfully need to be in prison for the protection of society. But there are many who don’t belong there.”

Twenty-five years ago, she went to make a documentary in a women’s prison, and was fascinated and horrified by the conditions and the injustice she found. “I was hooked. I had to do something, she told me — and the Justice and Clemency Project was it.”

The vast majority of Michigan’s 39,000 current prison inmates are men. There are only about 2,100 women in Michigan prisons, all of whom are held at the Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti, a grim and crowded facility.

Two years ago, a guard at Huron Valley named Lauralie Herkimer resigned, and publicly blasted the prison as rundown, overcrowded and dangerous, and Carol Jacobsen doesn’t disagree.

Over the years, her Justice and Clemency Project has convinced various governors to release a dozen women. Now, she’s battling to win freedom for eight more, all of whom, she says, were battered women who were sentenced to life in prison for first degree murder.

In many cases, she told me, laws have changed that might have helped their cases today. In one case, that of Nancy Seaman, who was sentenced in 2004 for killing her husband, the judge who presided over her conviction thinks she deserves a new trial.

Melissa Swiney, mentioned above, was an incest victim who gave birth to a baby and left it in a field to die in 1988. “She grew up in a violent, drug-infested home,” Jacobsen said.

“She was hospitalized in a mental ward where her confession was coerced by police while she was on heavy medication.”

Melissa Chapman, who has also been in prison since 1988, did not kill anyone herself, but was present when her violent boyfriend shot a man, and then helped him hide the body.

Both women are 49, and have been model prisoners. The other six have similar stories.

The clemency project has been working on their cases for years, mainly with the governor’s chief legal counsel, Beth Clement and her legal team. “They went over our list carefully and remarked that ‘all these cases are very compelling,’” Jacobsen said.

But last November, Clement was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Michigan Supreme Court. The clemency project began working with the deputy counsel, Paul Smith, who has been helpful, but things haven’t been happening. Now, she is beginning to worry.

Gov. Rick Snyder will be out of office forever in less than eight months, and his entire legal team leaves with him. That would mean starting all over. When I tried to contact Smith, I received an e-mail from Anna Heaton, the governor’s press secretary instead.

“All the appeals mentioned are still in process. The parole board is investigating each case individually, and a public hearing will be held if they believe there is a likelihood of parole or clemency,” Anna Heaton told me. If they get that far, the requests are then sent to the governor with a recommendation from the board,” she added.

Carol Jacobsen said “that means they’ll never get out.” Parole boards, she said, have never been sympathetic to her cases.

So last week, she wrote to the governor, pleading with him to commute the eight women’s sentences.

“You have shown support for domestic violence survivors by signing a number of bills to support the rights of survivors, but those don’t help the forgotten survivors who are serving unjust life sentences for defending themselves.”

Clemency, she told the governor, “is meant for precisely this kind of redress of an injustice.” Now, all anyone can do is wait.

Her eight prisoners have, after all, nothing but time.

Jack Lessenberry is the head of journalism at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

May 17, 2018 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Michael Paul Goldenberg // May 24, 2018 at 10:20 am

    Thanks for steering me here, Jack. Great story that needs to be heard. Looking forward to continuing to follow your writing here.

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