April 20, 2009
Law students help incarcerated domestic abuse victims seek commutations
When Sheila Schertz was convicted of kidnapping and murder in 1982, Iowa's legal system had no provision for considering the plight of abused women like her.
That year, the Davenport woman was involved in the kidnapping of one man and the murder of another that was engineered by her abusive husband and three other men. She knew what was happening was wrong, but she felt pressured, intimidated and bullied by the men to the point where she found her own safety was threatened unless she went along.
That meant nothing to the law, though, and today, Schertz is serving a life sentence for kidnapping in the state women's prison in Mitchellville.
But several University of Iowa law students are working to provide Schertz and other women inmates like her with the possibility of eventual release. The students are part of the Skylark Project, a partnership between the law school and the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence that helps some women have their cases reviewed in light of more recent interpretations of the law that are more understanding of what horrors face women in abusive relationships.
"Domestic violence was treated much differently up until the 1980s, when we started to have a greater understanding of the psychological circumstances these women endure in abusive relationships," said Linda McGuire, associate dean of public engagement in the UI law school and an expert in domestic abuse law. "Many of them are in situations where their lives were in danger, and that's taken into account now."
Unfortunately, that's too late for women like Schertz who were convicted under older, less understanding interpretations of the law. The Skylark Project is currently reviewing the cases of five Iowa abused women who were convicted of crimes committed decades ago.
Three teams of two UI students are helping three of the women under the auspices of the Citizen Lawyer Program, the law school's civic engagement project. Two other women are being helped by recent Iowa law graduates who are working on the cases pro bono.
The students chose to work on the Skylark Project in order to accompany victims of domestic violence and to raise awareness of the hurdles these women face. They said their experience will help them better understand the effects of domestic violence, the corrections system, and how they can best serve as advocates for these women.
Two of the students -- Amy Halbur and Allison McCarthy -- are working with Schertz to apply for commutation of her sentence to the Iowa Board of Parole and Gov. Chet Culver. If successful, Schertz's life sentence will be commuted to a term of years, making her eligible to apply for parole.
Halbur and McCarthy worked with Schertz through the fall semester to learn more about her case and to help her prepare for the interview with the board, which was held Nov. 3 over the Iowa Communications Network.
"We met three times and talked about the crime and her history of domestic violence," said Halbur. Schertz had grown up abused, and was unable to bring herself to leave her abusive husband before the crime.
"She's in a vulnerable position, but once she realized we wanted to help her, she really opened up and we discovered what a strong person she is," Halbur said.
Halbur and McCarthy helped Schertz prepare for her interview with the board and reminded her to stay focused, which can be difficult for abused women because they frequently block the memory of some events as a coping mechanism.
"She's a sweet, kind person, a model prisoner who helps other inmates and is involved in every charity event they offer," said McCarthy.
In addition to meeting with Schertz, Halbur and McCarthy researched the legal issues in her case. They prepared a letter to the board explaining how Schertz's history of abuse impacted her role in the crimes and how strong Schertz has become since that time.
McCarthy and Halbur said the hearing went well and on March 5, Schertz and the students learned that the board had voted unanimously to recommend commutation to the governor's office.
The board will send its report and recommendation to Culver sometime this spring, and the governor will make his decision within 90 days of receiving the file. If he does decide to commute the sentence, then Schertz will go before the parole board once more to seek parole and release, and UI law students could be at her side again.
Halbur said Schertz understands the process is still early and the chances for her release still long.
"We wanted to make sure that after all this, at least she can feel good about herself," she said. "She understands that she did something wrong and she should be punished for it. She's been incarcerated for 28 years now and she's served her punishment."
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell), firstname.lastname@example.org