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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.

One of the successes of the domestic violence movement has been its ability to publicize the plight of battered women serving prison time for crimes related to their abuse. Since 1978, the nation's governors have granted clemency to more than 125 women convicted of killing (or ordering the killing of) their abusers. The largest group of clemencies took place in Ohio in 1990, when Governor Richard Celeste commuted the sentences of 25 women, explaining that they were "victims in a profound way and were prevented from giving evidence…essential to a jury's being able to reach a sound verdict." When he was governor of Missouri, John Ashcroft granted clemency in 1992 to two women who said they'd killed their husbands in self-defense.

The subject of domestic violence has receded from the headlines in recent years, but the numbers suggest it's still a major social problem. While services for battered women—including hot lines and shelter beds—have increased dramatically, there are still not enough; 4,237 adults and children were turned away from domestic violence shelters in Missouri last year because there was not enough space, according to Colleen Coble. Even when services are available, some women are too terrified to use them. Fleeing from a batterer can actually increase the violence a woman faces; many of the 1,202 women killed by their husbands or boyfriends in the U.S. in 2002 were murdered after they'd already escaped from their homes.

While Joe Church was the catalyst for Missouri's latest clemency movement, his own priority was always the same: to get clemency for Shelley. Neither he nor the lawyers he had enlisted had any idea how long their fight would go on. All they really had was an unshakable belief that Shelley and many other women who had killed their abusers never deserved the harsh punishments they'd received.

Joe Church, Shelley's friend and advocate, in his Morgan Stanley office
Joe Church, Shelley's friend and advocate, in his Morgan Stanley office

SHELLEY POVIS GREW UP in St. Ann, a blue-collar suburb west of St. Louis. When she was 17 and a senior at Mercy High, she began dating Rodney Hendrickson. She liked the fact that he was almost four years older. He hung out with her uncle and cultivated a bad-boy persona, growing his hair long and zooming around town on a motorcycle. According to the neighborhood grapevine, he had smacked around his last girlfriend. Shelley's mother, Mickie, tried to dissuade her from dating him, but Shelley wouldn't listen. "He's really not a bad guy," she said.

Shelley and Rodney got married in 1980, when she was 21. She worked as a waitress; he got a job with the gas company. From the beginning, he kept her under surveillance. He would check on her all the time, calling or stopping by her job to make sure she was there. He also paid close attention to her appearance. If he thought another guy was checking her out, he'd get angry. Soon he was picking out her clothes for her—always modest items that would discourage other men. "I thought it was kind of neat," Shelley recalls. "I thought, wow, this guy wants to pick out my clothes. He really loves me."

Rodney was a heavy drinker, and when he got drunk he could become aggressive. Occasionally he would smack Shelley, or grab her and shake her. "A lot of it I thought was my fault," she says. It was impossible to predict when he'd lose his temper. She could be sitting next to Rodney watching television, and the next thing she knew he would be hitting her. After each fight, he apologized and tried to win her back. "He'd buy me gifts and flowers," she says. "There would be periods when he would treat me like a queen."

Eight years into the marriage, Shelley decided she'd had enough of Rodney's drunken rages. By now they had three children. She moved out, taking the children with her.

At first Rodney didn't know where she'd gone, but after four weeks he tracked her down at a shelter for battered women. She walked out the back of the shelter one day, and there he was, sitting in his truck. "You need to come home now," he told her. "If you don't go in there and get your stuff, I'm going to go in and get it." As usual, he made promises about how he had changed, how he was drinking less, how he wouldn't hit her anymore. Shelley and the children moved back into their house.

In the years that followed, Rodney warned Shelley never to run away from him again. "He told me if I ever left again, he would hunt me down," she says. She knew him well enough not to take this threat lightly. When she'd been at the shelter, he'd called her mother all the time, begging for information about where she was. Shelley worried that if she ever left Rodney again, she'd put not only herself and the children at risk, but her mother, too.

She hid these fears from her family, just as she had hidden the evidence of Rodney's abuse. She tried hard to project the image of a happy marriage, avoiding her relatives whenever she had a black eye or a bruise. "When we had a barbecue planned and I talked to her the day before, she'd say, 'Yeah, I'm going to bring the potato salad.' And everything was fine," her mother recalls. "That would be Saturday. And Sunday morning she'd call and say one of the kids was sick, or she was sick, or she just didn't show up."

During the summer of 1993, the Missouri and Mississippi rivers overflowed. It was the most devastating flood in recent history and damaged more than 55,000 homes, including Rodney and Shelley's. The entire interior of their house was destroyed, filled with slime and river water. Now they had four children and nowhere to live. They moved into Shelley's mother's basement for a few months, then into a tiny apartment, which was all they could afford. The stress mounted. Shelley and the children spent hours in emergency relief lines, trying to get free clothes or building materials. Rodney worked days driving a delivery truck, then at night rebuilding the house.

In November 1993, Shelley got a job as a weight-loss consultant. One day she showed up with a bruise stretching from one ear, across her throat, and all the way to her other ear. Another time her boss saw a dark spot the size of a dinner plate on Shelley's thigh. At first Shelley blamed her own clumsiness, but eventually she told the truth. When her boss urged her to leave Rodney, Shelley said she was afraid that if she did, he would hunt her down and kill her.

Shelley and Rodney moved back into their house in the summer of 1994, after living elsewhere for nearly a year. By now, they never seemed to have any good days anymore. Rodney had stopped trying to woo her back with gifts every time he hit her. "I wouldn't even get an 'I'm sorry,'" she says.

One day in the fall of 1994, he threatened her with a hunting knife. Afterward she hid the knife; Rodney became furious. "He had me up against the wall, choking me, telling me that I better have his knife when he got home from work or he was going to kill me," she says. Shelley pleaded with him to let her leave with the kids, but her words only made him more angry. "None of you are leaving," he said. "I'd rather see you all dead than leave."

Their 11-year-old daughter, Ashley, overheard this argument. After Rodney left the house to go to work, Ashley said something Shelley found very disturbing. "She told me that he would come in and go to the bathroom when she was in the bathtub and watch her," Shelley says.

The following week, on October 29, Shelley drove to Kmart and bought a 12-gauge shotgun.

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