Working toward justice
UI law students help commute abused woman’s prison sentence
As Gov. Chet Culver left office in January 2011, one of his last acts was to commute the prison sentence of Sheila Schertz, an act that happened with the help of University of Iowa law students.
The students were part of the Skylark Project, a partnership between the College of Law and the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV) that helps some imprisoned women have their sentences reviewed in light of recent understanding of the nature of domestic abuse.
“I hope this brings more attention to how domestic violence affects women and how abused persons make decisions,” says Allison McCarthy, a 2009 law graduate who worked on Schertz’s case as a third-year law student and now practices at Cole and Vondra in Iowa City.
Schertz, of Davenport, has been in the state women’s prison in Mitchellville since 1982, when she was convicted for her involvement in the kidnapping of one man and murder of another that was engineered by her abusive husband and three other men. She did not know the group was planning to commit the crimes, and when she realized what was happening, she felt powerless to stop it because she had been physically abused by her husband. She felt pressured, intimidated, and bullied by the men to the point where she found her own safety was threatened unless she went along.
The law at the time did not allow for consideration of how abuse may have affected a person’s actions, says Linda McGuire, associate UI law dean who oversees the law school’s community engagement initiative, the Citizen Lawyer Program. It now has a greater understanding of the relationship and takes that into account during trial and sentencing, but that doesn’t do much to help women like Schertz.
Skylark Project was begun to take up the cases of some of those women and work to have their sentences reconsidered, McGuire says. Students work closely with attorneys and representatives of ICADV to review cases, assist with paperwork, and work with the prisoners. So far, 16 UI law students have worked on the project, interviewing clients at the prison, helping the women prepare their applications and writing memos supporting the applications.
McCarthy and Amy Halbur—also a 2009 law school graduate—started working with Schertz in 2008 to prepare her for her interview with the Iowa Board of Parole. They worked with her to stay focused during the interview, which McCarthy says was not easy because she had grown up abused, and abused persons often lose focus and block out certain memories as a coping mechanism.
They also 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. In March 2009, the board voted unanimously to recommend commutation to the governor’s office.
McCarthy acknowledges that she was frustrated with the slow pace of acting on the parole board’s recommendation, but is glad it ended happily with the commutation on Jan. 14. The case now goes back to the parole board to determine when or if Schertz will be released from prison.
In the meantime, McCarthy says she’s using much of what she learned about domestic abuse while researching Schertz’ case in her professional practice, helping immigrant women who have been abused.“I see many of the same stories and many of the same behaviors across cultures as I saw researching Sheila’s story, so my work on Skylark Project is still paying off by helping in my practice,” she says.