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Survivors of abuse behind bars

By Lisa Brody
News Editor
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The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, providing $1.6 billion toward investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, it imposed automatic and mandatory restitution on those convicted, and allowed civil redress in cases prosecutors chose not to prosecute. It was reauthorized by bipartisan majorities in Congress in 2000 and 2005. The Act's 2012 renewal was opposed by conservative Republicans, but was ultimately reauthorized in 2013 after expiring in 2011.

Among the services VAWA provides to women is federal rape shield law; community violence prevention programs; protection for stalking victims; funding for rape crisis centers and hotlines; and legal aid for survivors of domestic violence.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation, Public Act 93 in May 2016, that protects domestic violence victims by limiting mediation in domestic relations cases involving protected persons to situations where a court hearing has occurred or when mediation is requested by the protected person.

Protective laws are too late now for Karen Kantzler and Nancy Seaman. Today, each woman is seeking clemency from Governor Snyder, both with the efforts of the Women's Justice and Clemency Project at University of Michigan. Kantzler has also repeatedly sought to be released from prison. For Seaman, at this point, parole isn't an option, unless her case is somehow heard again and her sentence reduced from first degree murder, which necessitates life without parole.

After the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed Judge McDonald's decision of second degree murder and reinstated her life sentence, the Michigan Supreme Court chose to not take her case. It then went to federal court before U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, who in his opinion found that there had been ineffective counsel in not permitting Walker to testify. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Friedman's opinion, stating "Battered spouse syndrome is not itself a defense under Michigan law."

And so she sits, although over the past 30 years approximately eight prisoners per year serving a life sentence have been released through the lifer law or commutation process, the Michigan Department of Corrections said. This is what gives Seaman hope, as she works with the Justice and Clemency Program and other advocates. McDonald and others have written to the governor, advocating for clemency.

Friedman declined to comment for this article, noting that there was always the possibility that the case could come before him again, just as public sentiment for juveniles in jail for life or former cocaine lifer laws have forced legislative and judicial changes.

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