Client of Prof. Murray's Clemency Clinic on Path to Release after Board of Pardons Hearing, Star Tribune Reports

A client of the Law School's Clemency Clinic run by Professor JaneAnne Murray is one step closer to release.  At a hearing before the Minnesota Board of Pardons on Nov. 21, Samantha Heiges was told by Governor Walz that she would likely go home on Dec. 13, 2021, subject to the development of an effective release plan, which Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell assured would be prepared on time. "Prepare yourself for going and living with your daughter and achieving what you hope to achieve," Gov. Tim Walz told Heiges.

The facts of Heiges's case are tragic.  At 19, scared, alone, isolated from family, friends and medical professionals, she gave birth in a bathtub in the one-bedroom apartment she shared with her abusive boyfriend. Moments after birth, and driven by her boyfriend's threats, she drowned her baby in the bathwater. Days later, she attempted suicide.  Several years later, she broke down and confessed to a friend, who relayed the information to the police. Heiges then confessed to the police several times.  Charged with second degree murder, Heiges rejected a plea to manslaughter that would have resulted in a sentence of four years.  She went to trial, was convicted, and was sentenced to a guideline sentence of 25 years in prison. 

In the ensuing 13 years or so, Heiges has been a model prisoner, working consistently (mostly in textiles and training guide-dogs), studying extensively such that she has just earned her bachelor's degree, playing a role as mentor, advocate and leader for her fellow prisoners, but most importantly, embracing her role as mother to the second daughter born to her one year before her incarceration.  The two are so close, as Professor Rebecca Shlafer of the University of Medical School testified at the Pardon Board hearing, that two years ago, Heiges and her daughter both donated their hair together to cancer survivors. Heiges had previously donated her own hair three times. Shlafer, an expert in parental incarceration, has advocated for Heiges over the years to ensure that her bond with her living daughter was preserved. 

Murray met Heiges during a visit of Shakopee Women's Prison in 2018 with her clinic students. In 2019, Murray took on the representation of Heiges in a clemency petition, and recruited student Hannah Camilleri-Hughes '20 to work on the case.  Their petition was filed in 2020.  The first hearing on the petition was held today. At the hearing, she was represented by Murray and Camilleri-Hughes (who did so in her capacity as a Clinic attorney), and Professor Schlafer attended too in her capacity as an expert witness to Heiges's extraordinary parenting and rehabilitation. Heiges's mother also testified about her strides in development while in custody and the depth of the network of support for her upon release.  Ms. Camilleri-Hughes told the board "that Heiges' then-boyfriend was physically and emotionally abusive and cut her off from her familial and social support networks during the pregnancy," noting Heiges's later suicide attempt after drowning the baby.  Murray pointed out that Heiges's sentencing judge had submitted a letter to the Pardon Board indicating that she did not oppose a commutation.  Murray had obtained a psychological evaluation of Heiges earlier this year from Dr. Ernest Boswell, who concluded that at the time of her offense, Heiges was systematically exposed to a pattern of serial emotional, verbal, and physical abuse, meeting criteria for “traumatic exposure” for PTSD.  He adds that today, Heiges scores remarkably high in empathy, exhibits profound remorse and pro-social behavior, and is at a low risk for recidivism.

The board members acknowledged the awfulness and tragedy of the crime. But so too did they express their compassion for Heiges and her living daughter, and their appreciation of her rehabilitation efforts in prison. The trio agreed that clemency was appropriate. Heiges's sentence would not be reduced but rather the remaining custodial portion would be converted into a supervised release term. DOC Commissioner Schnell will work on a release plan—with the assistance of the Clemency Clinic if necessary—and present to the Board on Dec. 13, 2021, at which point, it is hoped that Heiges will walk free.