Clinic Client Calls Early Release 'A Miracle'

Charity Sue Carey leaving prison
Clinic client Charity Sue Carey
had her sentence commuted
from 30 years to 10 years.
photo by Mary Butkus

As the prison gates at the correctional facility in Vandalia, Missouri, slid open and the Civil Justice Clinic’s client walked out a free woman, it felt like a miracle.

Four law students and their supervising attorney, who had worked tirelessly on her commutation petition, parole application, and exit plan, shared a perfect moment—the incredible gift of knowing their hard work had paid off and justice was being served. For their client, who had been convicted in the murder of her abusive husband, it was a disorienting flood of amazement, joy, relief, bewilderment, and gratitude.

“I didn’t think anything like this was ever going to happen,” said Charity Sue Carey, whose sentence had been commuted by outgoing Governor Matt Blunt from 30 years to 10 years. “I got a miracle. I don’t know whether to get down on the ground and cry or to jump for joy. I am so thankful for everything the students and Brendan did for me.”

After family members, including Carey’s mother and 15-year-old son, greeted her warmly, the law students and clinic attorney Brendan Roediger exchanged congratulatory hugs with their client.

“The other girls who were getting out with me asked, ‘Are you famous?' 'Are those people here for you?’” Carey told the law school group gathered in the prison parking lot for her April 24 release. “So I had to explain, ‘Those are my attorneys. I’m getting out early. They did an awesome job.’”

Charity Sue Carey and four law students who worked on her commutation petition.
Clinic students share in the joy of their client Charity Sue Carey’s early release.
Carey, center, holds a special blend of coffee that she received as a gift.
photo by Mary Butkus

Third-year law student Katie Greiner, who had worked on the documentation for the parole board hearing, noted: “It was amazing to go to Vandalia and see Charity released. The fact that it will be one of our last memories of law school made it perfect. It was a great graduation gift.”

Third-year law student Erin Nave, who had helped draft the commutation petition, agreed: “All the clinic students who have worked on this case over the years have felt really strongly that Charity was deserving of clemency. We were given a unique opportunity last fall to present Charity’s case as Governor Blunt was leaving office, and it was extremely meaningful to be in Vandalia to see our efforts come to fruition on the day of her release. Working on Charity’s case was one of the highlights of my law school career.”

Joint law and social work student Lauren Kupersmith observed, “It seemed like such a long shot when we first started working on her case, but once she got parole, it started to sink in. We then worked on her exit plan, and it was exciting to begin to see what her new life would be like. When we finally got to the day of her release, we knew we could just enjoy it and be happy.”

Since 2005, the clinic has worked to bring to light the extreme physical and sexual violence that Carey, now 35, had suffered at the hands of her husband. She was convicted before much was known about “battered wife syndrome,” and her 30-year sentence for second-degree murder would now be considered excessive.

Third-year-law student Anne Siarnacki recalled, “When my fellow clinic students and I first reviewed Charity’s case, we were shocked by the injustice that had occurred. Having exhausted her legal remedies, we knew we had to take Charity’s case to the governor. Clemencies are almost never granted. To see Charity walk out of prison was a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Charity Sue Carey with four law students who worked on her clemency case.
Clinic students go over paperwork with their client, including information
about her transitional housing. photo by Mary Butkus

Carey’s case was originally referred to the clinic by the Missouri Battered Women’s Clemency Project. Over the last four years, nearly 20 law students have worked on her case, including sifting through thousands of pages of records, obtaining affidavits, and drafting various petitions for her release. When Governor Blunt decided not to run for re-election in 2008, the clinic saw a potential window of opportunity.

Under the supervision of Roediger and Professor Katherine Goldwasser, clinic students crafted a new comprehensive application for executive clemency, including legal arguments, biographical details, a psychological evaluation, a discussion of her accomplishments in prison, and plans for her life after release. The clinic’s petition was initially rejected, but Roediger said he, the students, and other clinic faculty and staff decided to press on. They reworked the petition in a more narrative form and began an ongoing conversation with members of the general counsel’s office in an effort to have the petition thoroughly reviewed.

Clinic Attorney Brendan Roediger and Charity Sue Carey
Clinic attorney Brendan Roediger
exchanges a hug with the clinic’s client.
photo by Mary Butkus

“At first, it felt hopeless, but we decided to keep going,” Roediger said. “The students worked incredibly hard. In addition to the various legal arguments, we tried to persuade the governor that this case was not a political issue, but fundamentally about recognizing the impact of domestic violence. We felt that if the petition was closely read, we had made a compelling case.”

Once they got the governor’s attention, a flurry of requests and faxed responses ensued. Then the general counsel’s office made one final call to Roediger.

“I received the incredible news of her commutation in January 12,” he recalled. “We then turned our focus to convincing the parole board and to planning for her release in April. It was an amazing feeling to be there when Charity finally got out. I am so proud of the students.”

Other members of the clinic who worked on the case included Professors Jane Aiken, Adele Morrison, Kim Norwood, C.J. Larkin, and Steven Gunn; Clinical Administrative Coordinator Katie Herr; and students Tom Smith, Emily Vance, Colin O’Brien, Michelle Weltman, Sarah Kuehnel, Claudine Chastain, Tonya Oliver, Sarah Schneider, James Beal, Meredith Schnug, Laura Bernatowicz, Christallyn McCloud, Anna Scheible, Catherine Guy, Nnamdi Ezeife, and Pamela Dixon.