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Frozen In Tme

Amy Lorenz-Moser works to free battered women from prison

Published in 2012 Missouri & Kansas Rising Stars magazine

Carlene Borden and Vicky Williams had each spent more than 30 years in Missouri prison without an end in sight. Both women were serving life sentences without parole for 50 years for murdering their husbands, but their 1970s trials hadn’t admitted crucial evidence: Both were longtime victims of domestic violence.

Then Amy Lorenz-Moser and the Missouri Battered Women’s Clemency Coalition got involved.

“It seemed like the law had changed; society had changed, [but] these sentences just stayed the same,” Lorenz-Moser says. “These women were just frozen in time.”

Lorenz-Moser’s foray into what became a pro bono battle that lasted 10-plus years began when she was a law student at the University of Missouri-Columbia, a school she had selected in part because of her interest in its Domestic Violence Clinic. In 1999, professor Mary Beck, director of the clinic, approached her about volunteering for a coalition formed by Missouri’s four law schools which was working to pardon 11 women convicted of murdering their abusers during the 1970s and 1980s, a time when domestic abuse evidence wasn’t routinely introduced at trial.

“Domestic violence is an issue I’ve cared about for a long time, and [the Coalition] just felt like a place where I could make a difference,” Lorenz-Moser says.

She and a classmate wrote a clemency petition for a woman, Lynda Branch, who was incarcerated in 1986.

“I will never forget the first time I went to the prison and saw Lynda,” Lorenz-Moser says. “Prior to that first meeting, I had seen photos of Lynda from before her time in prison. When I saw her in person, it was hard to tell [she] was the same person. She had been so beat down. … I was able to leave and go home to my normal life, but she had to stay in this terrible place. That really hits home when you see it in person. … She had lost everything because she had been chosen as a victim and decided to fight back.”

She describes working on the case as “a career-changing experience,” even though the petition languished on the desks of three different governors for several years.

Her work didn’t stop in law school. Lorenz-Moser—who currently practices products liability litigation at Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis—remained heavily involved with the Coalition’s work. She even ventured into new legal territory, using an untested statute to argue Borden and Williams’ cases.

The law, which Missouri passed in August 2007, seemed “custom-made” for the Coalition’s remaining imprisoned women, allowing those serving life sentences for killing their spouse or domestic partner to apply for parole if they met certain criteria. This included: proving evidence of domestic violence not admitted during trial; having no prior felonies; and having served at least 15 years of their sentence.

Despite the new law, the case became even more challenging for Lorenz-Moser’s clients: The state parole board immediately denied Borden’s and Williams’ releases, citing that their releases were not in the best interest of society; the board later justified its decision by stating that it had unlimited discretion over parole under the general Missouri parole statute, despite the new, more specific statute. Under current law, “other than one case, it’s almost impossible to find a case that has overturned the parole board’s decision,” Lorenz-Moser says.

The one exception? The woman Lorenz-Moser wrote her first petition for: Lynda Branch. Gov. Bob Holden commuted Branch’s sentence in late 2004, but the parole board resisted until early 2007 after Beck led the Coalition’s efforts to litigate her release.

Lorenz-Moser feels a lack of understanding of the culture of domestic violence might have contributed to the parole board’s resistance. She notes that the board asked uninformed questions about Borden and Williams, such as, “Why didn’t these women just leave their abusive situations?”

“With people who work on these cases, we understand that 70 percent of the killings that happen in domestic violence situations happen when the woman tries to leave,” she says. “These women are scared to death. That’s why they don’t leave.”

Faced with a long, frustrating process of filing writs against the board and re-petitioning after repeated parole denials, Lorenz-Moser kept in mind advice from Colleen Coble, CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “She said, ‘You have to have patience with our brothers and sisters who aren’t there yet.’ … I think that some people view these killings as revenge, and it’s our job [to make them see] it as self-defense, as fear,” Lorenz-Moser says.

Ultimately, Lorenz-Moser and the Coalition successfully overturned the board’s decision, and on Oct. 15, 2010, Borden and Williams were released after each served 32 years. The Coalition also successfully completed its mission—to date, 10 women have been freed, with the 11th set for a 2013 release.

Lorenz-Moser, who has received several awards for her pro bono work, including the ABA’s 2012 Pro Bono Publico Award, currently represents two other battered women convicted of murder. She hopes Gov. Jay Nixon will grant their clemency petitions.

She is proud of the women the Coalition has helped. “They have all been shining examples of why we were fighting,” she says. “These women were not a threat to society, and I think every day they prove that.”

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