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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.

WHEN POLICE OFFICERS walked into the Hendrickson home at 2:45 a.m. on October 31, 1994, they found Shelley in her nightgown, curled up in the fetal position on the floor. She had a swollen eye, a bruise on her forehead, and tears running down her cheeks. Tied to one of her wrists was a piece of rope. Ashley was on the couch next to her; the three other children were in their rooms. In the master bedroom, the officers found Rodney facedown on the bed. Blood spattered the wall next to him. One of his eyeballs was on the floor. There was a gunshot wound in the back of his head.

At first Shelley insisted a pair of masked men had broken in, tied her to the bed, and shot Rodney. Three hours later, hunched over a table in an interrogation room at the police station, she confessed to the murder. Earlier that night, she explained, after the children had gone to sleep, Rodney had grabbed her by the hair, smashed her head against the headboard, and tied her wrists to the bed. Then he raped her. After he fell asleep, she'd freed herself and reached under the bed to get the shotgun.

An autopsy later revealed that at the time of his death Rodney had a large amount of cocaine in his system. The police found the shotgun in the basement, in a portion still filled with water from the flood 16 months earlier. They found the rest of the ammunition in another part of the basement, hidden in a box with Christmas lights.

During the police interrogation, Shelley admitted lying about more than just the masked men. Two days earlier she'd called 911 and made a false report, claiming that someone had stolen her new shotgun. She had fabricated this story, she insisted, to steer Rodney off course if he found out she'd purchased a weapon. Why had she decided to buy a gun in the first place? "To protect myself," she said.

The masked men, the stolen gun, the false report she filed with the police—all of these made-up stories undermined Shelley's credibility in the minds of the officers. "Based on these circumstances, I told Michelle that I was having a hard time believing anything she told me," one sergeant wrote in his report. To someone who knew her history of abuse, Shelley's fabrications might have looked very different—evidence of her desperation as she increasingly felt her life was in danger.

Shelley was taken to the county jail and charged with first-degree murder. Her bail was set at $1 million. Six weeks later, during a preliminary hearing, an expert on battered women testified that Shelley had endured nearly 20 years of abuse and that she was not a threat to society. In another county, a better understanding of the psychology of domestic violence victims (combined with the way Shelley's face looked when she was arrested) might have convinced the prosecuting attorney to charge her with a less serious crime—manslaughter, say, instead of murder. But the prosecutors in St. Charles County, a conservative area outside St. Louis, did not budge.

Shelley's children—ages 11, 8, 7, and 5—moved in with one of Rodney's sisters. Shelley's first choice, her own sister, had no room in her house since she already had five children of her own. Shelley spent the next two years in the county jail, trying to figure out what to do. If she went to trial and lost, she'd likely spend the rest of her life in prison. In the end, she decided to plead guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a 15-year prison sentence. She would be eligible for parole in about 13 years. By then all four of her children would have grown up without her.

PROFESSORS AND STUDENTS at four law schools across Missouri worked throughout most of 1999 and 2000 preparing clemency applications. They sorted through dozens of cases and came up with 11 women they thought were good candidates. All met the same criteria: They had a history of domestic violence; they had been convicted of killing (or ordering the killing of) their batterers; they had received lengthy prison sentences; and they had exhausted all their legal appeals.

Of the 11 women, 5 had life sentences, 3 had to serve 50 years before they were eligible for parole, 1 had a 20-year sentence, and 2 (including Shelley) had received 15 years. The clemency petitions contended that the "presence of prolonged and sustained abuse" should have reduced the women's culpability in the eyes of prosecutors and resulted in less severe punishments.

"These women are not what have been described as your 'typical murderers,'" wrote Jane Aiken, a professor at Washington University School of Law, in a legal brief filed with the petitions. "They did not act with 'cold hearts': their acts are better characterized as final acts of desperation in the context of severe physical and sexual violence inflicted upon them."

In this clemency campaign, Shelley played a crucial role. She recruited many of the women, including her friend Carlene Borden, who'd been locked up since 1978 in connection with her boyfriend's murder of her abusive husband. Of the 11 women represented by the team of law professors, Carlene had been imprisoned the longest. Another candidate was Ruby Jamerson, who had been sent to prison in 1989 for asking her son and his friend to kill her abusive husband.

Much has changed since the 1970s and 1980s, when Carlene and Ruby were convicted. Now police officers are more likely to arrest an abusive husband when his wife calls the police. When a woman is charged with killing her batterer, the defense team often includes an expert on domestic violence. And judges are much more likely to allow testimony about past abuse. Indeed, as the clemency petitions pointed out, women accused of killing their abusers in the 1970s and 1980s would likely receive less prison time today for the same crime.

To bolster Shelley's clemency application, her legal team collected 21 letters of support from members of her family and 36 from friends and former classmates at Mercy High. Nobody from Rodney's family wrote on her behalf, but Rodney's sister-in-law Melissa did write to Shelley's lawyers, trying to dissuade them. "The fact of the matter is that Michelle Hendrickson is a murderer," she wrote. "I don't feel that after planning and premeditating a murder and shooting her husband in the head with a deer slug that she should be released after just 6 years." In the summer of 2000, Governor Carnahan was running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Hopes were high that he might grant clemency to a group of women right before he left office, when elected officials are more likely to make this sort of politically risky decision. Then, on October 17, 2000, Carnahan died in a plane crash. The possibility that Shelley and the rest of the women would be let out of prison early suddenly seemed much less likely.

The team of law professors pressed on, turning their focus to Carnahan's replacement, Lt. Governor Roger B. Wilson, who filled the top spot for 83 days. On the last day of Wilson's short term, Shelley's lawyer, Marie Kenyon, traveled to Jefferson City. "I followed his chief lawyer around the Capitol building the whole day, bugging him," says Marie, an adjunct professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. "He was in his office, wrapping up his plaques, putting them in boxes, explaining to us why this wasn't going to happen."

Robert Holden succeeded Wilson as governor in January 2001, and nearly four years later, at the end of his term, the coalition finally had its first success. Holden commuted the sentences of two women represented by the coalition: Shirley Lute, 74, who had been locked up for 23 years, and Lynda Branch, 52, who'd been in prison for 18 years. Holden's decision enabled them to go before the parole board this year; they are expected to be released soon.

At the end of 2004, Shelley received a letter stating that her request for clemency had been denied. There was no explanation. Now she must wait three years before she can reapply. "That's one of the ridiculous things about this case," says Marie. "It literally sat on the governor's desk for almost five years, so that was five years of wasted time."

ONE MORNING THIS SPRING, Shelley, who is now 45, told her story to a reporter while seated in the parole room at a prison in Vandalia, Missouri. She wore a gray inmate uniform and two crosses, one on a chain around her neck and another pinned to her collar. She still has curly blond hair, but now it's thinner on top. Both her mother and grandmother had breast cancer, and two years ago Shelley discovered a lump in one of her breasts. She recalls that it took her five or six months to get treatment. Joe and her mother called the prison regularly, trying to speed up the process. "You could be jeopardizing her life," Joe would say. Eventually Shelley had a lumpectomy, then chemotherapy and radiation.

These days, Shelley no longer sees bruises or black eyes when she looks in the mirror, but she can still see faint scars on her wrists, reminders of the rope burns she got when Rodney tied her to the bed. Though 11 years have passed since that last night with him, the memories are fresh in her mind. "I can still smell the smells," she says—sweat, gunpowder, blood. "And I can still hear the sounds. I can still feel the hits. I can still feel every time my head hit that headboard. I can still feel the burns on my wrists."

From behind the walls of prison, she tries to be a mother to her children, who are now 22, 18, 17, and 15. She calls them every Sunday evening at Rodney's sister's house, and her mother brings the youngest one to see her every month. But more than a year has passed since Shelley last saw her oldest child, Ashley. A few years ago, Ashley got into an abusive relationship, started using drugs, and got arrested. "Nobody knew where she was for over a year," Shelley says. "She was living in a car." The hardest part of being locked up, says Shelley, has been watching her kids struggle without her.

To boost Shelley's spirits, Joe reminds her of what they've accomplished over the last eight years: Two women will soon be freed, including 74-year-old Shirley Lute. "This lady was destined to die there," Joe says. "As I keep telling Shelley, had she not gone to prison, there's a good chance Shirley Lute may never have gotten out." Joe is planning a barbecue this summer to celebrate Shirley's release.

Shelley is not eligible for parole until 2007, when she will have served 85 percent of her sentence. Most likely she will leave behind Carlene, Ruby, and the rest of the women who joined the clemency campaign. Unless a sympathetic governor intervenes, they are destined to grow old in prison.

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