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Justice Thru Storytelling event next week in Spring Lake

Becky Vargo • Oct 26, 2018 at 3:00 PM

A coffee conversation with Humanity for Prisoners President Doug Tjapkes a couple of years ago drew area resident Kelle Lynn into her research of women in prison.

And her own personal experience gave her motivation and empathy to follow up her research and create Justice Thru Storytelling Inc., an organization that says it “advocates for women incarcerated in Michigan for defending their lives against an intimate abuser.”

Working to help encourage the commutation (shortening) of sentences for 10 of those women has been a big focus of the organization with the upcoming exit of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder at the end of his term. But the group is also actively working to raise awareness of a ruling from a 1995 case, People v. Christel, which limits expert testimony in battered women’s syndrome cases.

To further that effort, Justice Thru Storytelling is promoting its Double Injustice to Women Campaign with an informational event set for Tuesday, Oct. 30. It will take place in the Spring Lake Country Club ballroom, 17496 N. Fruitport Road, from 7-8:30 p.m.

The event is free and open to the public, and donations to the nonprofit Justice Thru Storytelling are encouraged. There will be a cash bar.

“When women who are being threatened and terrorized in their own home are then treated unfairly and with great disparity in the criminal justice system, they suffer a double injustice,” Lynn said.

Featured speakers at the event include Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack and retired Oakland County Circuit Judge Jack McDonald.

McCormack will explain the impact of People v. Christel, while McDonald will discuss how this rule played out for Nancy Seaman, a woman in his courtroom who was given a life sentence by a jury in 2005 after killing her husband in an act of self-defense. In the trial, a nationwide expert was not allowed to educate the jurors as to how battered women’s syndrome affected her, because of the limitations from the People v. Christel ruling.

Eight months after the trial, McDonald overturned the first-degree verdict and ordered a lesser sentence for Seaman.

“McDonald does not believe the jury was presented all the evidence on behalf of Seaman,” Lynn said.

Two other scheduled speakers, former Oakland County Circuit Judge Norman Lippitt and legendary civil rights attorney Dean Robb, are unable to attend the event, Lynn said. Instead, a discussion and a question-and-answer session will be held.

Lynn has spent hours and hours, primarily at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, talking to women incarcerated for defending their children’s lives and their own against abusers. She said she could relate to these women because she wasn’t far from being one of them.

“I was in a marriage with a controlling and physically abusive man,” Lynn said. “I’ve been choked and I’ve had my head banged against the wall and the floor.”

Lynn said she suffered cognitive and physical injuries from the abuse, but her shame was so great that she suffered in silence.

“I didn’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I understand silence, why women do that. I was one of them.”

Lynn said she also understands the fear and why women don’t just leave.

“It took me a long time to find my voice,” she said.

Lynn wants to educate battered women on documenting the abuse.

“The big problem is, women don’t have the necessary evidence they need” when they are pulled into court, Lynn said. “If they haven’t been calling police, if there’s no documented abuse, then they’re screwed.”

And that’s part of Nancy Seaman’s story, Lynn said. She hid what was happening to protect everybody’s reputation. Seaman was an award-winning schoolteacher married to an engineer.

The Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project in Ann Arbor is behind the commutation requests for the 10 women identified in the Justice for Women project, Lynn said.

The application for commutation of sentence was filed in 2017. Some of the women have had hearings, but Seaman is not one of them, Lynn said. 

A postcard campaign in April was designed to bring the governor’s attention to the requests. 

“I don’t know if they are still falling on deaf ears,” Lynn said.

She hopes the current campaign will get the attention of some legislators and that someone will sponsor a bill to reverse the regulations placed by People v. Christel.

For more information on Justice Thru Storytelling, go to their website at https://jtsadvocates.com/

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