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The Unforgiven

Shelley Hendrickson killed her abusive husband and went to jail. Then an old friend began a campaign to set her free—along with 10 other women.

JOE CHURCH HAD NOT EVEN PLANNED TO go to his 20th high school reunion. At the last minute, he changed his mind and dropped by the Irish bar in downtown St. Louis, where 70 or 80 classmates from Mercy High School had gathered. Back in the mid-1970s, Joe had been the sort of student who showed up for school late and left early, a regular visitor to the discipline office. By the time of the reunion in the summer of 1997, he had a wife, four children, and a job as a stockbroker at Morgan Stanley.

After half an hour of drinking and mingling, Joe spotted Shelley Povis' cousin. In high school, Shelley had been pretty and popular; she had a spot on the football cheerleading squad and friends in every clique. She and Joe had never been close, but he remembered her as always smiling, always fun to be around.

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"Where's Shelley?" he asked.

"She's in prison," her cousin said. Joe hadn't seen Shelley since graduation; the news stunned him. What sort of crime could she possibly have committed? Drugs? Bad checks? Shoplifting?

"She killed her husband," her cousin said.

Joe stayed at the reunion for a couple hours, then drove back to his house in the suburbs. Alone in his car, he tried to make sense of the news. A few days later, he sent Shelley a note and shortly after spoke with her on the phone. Shelley told him that she'd married an alcoholic who had abused her throughout their 14-year marriage. Three years ago, she'd confessed to killing him; a judge had sentenced her to 15 years in prison. "I was really taken aback with the whole thing," Joe says. "It was just hard to believe that, one, she could kill somebody, and two, under those circumstances she could've ended up in prison."

Eventually, one Saturday, Joe drove two and a half hours across the state to visit Shelley in prison; the next week, back in his office, he started making calls. He spoke with Shelley's mother, her former boss, the police. There was no doubt that Shelley had endured many years of beatings. The photos taken by the police after her arrest showed a woman he barely recognized, her face purple and black. "You don't have to look at those pictures very long to realize that something terrible was happening," he says. "How does a guy look at her and say, 'You're a murderer.' I just didn't understand."

One of the first people Joe called was Colleen Coble, head of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence. He had dated her one summer when they were teenagers, but they hadn't spoken in 10 or 15 years. On the phone, he was full of questions about how to launch a clemency campaign: "What are we going to do? How much money do I need to raise? Who do we need to contact?" His zeal did not surprise her. "He has a finely honed sense of right and wrong," she says, "and in that sense is the good Catholic boy his parents raised."

Joe moved quickly. He expanded his mission, compiling a list of women who might be good candidates for clemency. Then Colleen got a meeting for them with Governor Mel Carnahan's legal counsel. They were told that if they could gather more information about these women's cases, the governor would take a look at them. She contacted local law schools, and the Missouri Battered Women's Clemency Coalition was created. Soon every law school in the state had joined. Professors took up the cause in legal clinics, assigning students to reinvestigate cases of women who were in prison for killing their abusers.

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