By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Sister Karen wrote a note explaining Donna's circumstances, then asked the teenage student to deliver it to her grandmother. In May, Judge Dufficy, who is now retired, wrote to Pataki on Donna's behalf. "No person could be more deserving of executive clemency than DONNA CHARLES," she wrote.
Sister Karen's efforts to spring Donna from prison have stretched far beyond wooing Judge Dufficy. After Pataki's reelection, the nun sent a congratulatory card. Inside, she taped a fortune-cookie message: "The most precious flower of victory is pardon." She even convinced her longtime friend, Mike Long, a Pataki ally and the chair of the state's Conservative Party, to write on Donna's behalf.
Sister Karen has also tapped into her network of nuns. The Sisters of Saint Joseph, which is based on Long Island, has 900 members. Sister Karen urged them all to write letters. She even wrote a prayer for Donna, which she distributed to her fellow nuns and Judge Dufficy.
Lastly, the tenacious sister has worked the media. She tipped off a Newsdaycolumnist, and he wrote about Donna. Sister Karen hopes her strategy of bombarding Pataki with mail, prayers, and publicity will pay off. "If nothing else, maybe he'll just say, 'Let me get this woman out of my hair,' " the nun says.
Inside Bedford Hills, Donna is optimistic. Like Precious, she won a rare meeting with a special parole board in November. Already, some of Donna's fellow inmates are congratulating her. As she walks through the prison's corridors, they yell, "Girl, you've got it! You're going home!"
But Donna tries not to get too excited. "I'm scared to feel sure that I'm going because what happens when I don't go?" she says. But Donna can't stop the promise of freedom from permeating her dreams. "Every night it never fails," she says. "My dreams are of being out in the world shopping, walking with my kids, laying in the grass."
Linda White, 51, hopes her friend Charline Brundidge paved the way for her to leave prison. Brundidge got clemency in 1996, after serving 11 years of a 15-years-to-life sentence for killing her abusive husband. She had the fervent support of antidomestic-violence activists, who argued that she was one of many battered women who had been imprisoned too long for crimes of self-defense. For Linda, Brundidge's clemency became a new source of hope.
Linda wound up in Bedford Hills after killing a six-foot, 230-pound electrician named John Strouble in 1989. The couple dated for 15 months, and the relationship soon turned violent. One of Linda's neighbors testified she once had to free Linda after Strouble tied her up in the apartment with a leather belt. On other occasions, Linda says, Strouble slashed her arm with a razor blade and sexually assaulted her with a broken broomstick.
On the morning in 1989, Strouble waved a gun at Linda inside her 11th-floor apartment in a Far Rockaway, Queens, housing project. "He used to threaten me with a gun and then put it in a toolbox and close it up," Linda says. "But this morning he didn't do that. He put it on the nightstand. I thought he was going to do it this time." For his part, John informed his girlfriend: "I'm really going to kill you this time."
So Linda picked up the 38-caliber handgun from the night table and unloaded five bullets into the back of John Strouble. He died. She went to prison. A jury convicted Linda of second-degree murder. So far, she has served nine years of a 17-years-to-life sentence.
More than a year ago, Philip M. Genty, a professor at Columbia Law School, began working on Linda's case. The clemency application he compiled with several graduate students is two inches thick. It includes a 68-page petition arguing that if Linda committed her crime today, she likely would have been charged with first-degree manslaughter instead of murder. Had she been convicted of this lesser crime, Linda might now be out of prison.
Linda's clemency application includes more than 50 exhibits. There is the order of protection she got against Strouble, an employer's letter stating he was fired because of a drug problem, and certificates from the antiviolence programs she has completed while incarcerated. There's even a nine-minute videotape on which she talks about her abuse.
One item that is not in Linda's clemency packet, however, is a letter from Warren Silverman, the former prosecutor who tried her case. Silverman still believes Linda shot her boyfriend because she was jealous of his other girlfriend, not because she was afraid of him. "I didn't see any evidence of a battering relationship and certainly there was no evidence that her life was in danger," he says.
Meanwhile, two of Linda's former attorneys recently met with Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to win his support. Brown says, "I told them I would not oppose the application."
Linda dropped out of school after getting pregnant at age 14. By the time she turned 18, she had three children of her own. Linda took on the job of also rearing her four younger siblings when her mother died. By the time she was 24, Linda was raising seven children under the age of 10, including a mentally retarded brother. Without the help of Genty and his team of students, Linda knows she would have little chance of winning clemency. A former supermarket cashier, Linda says, "I'm not educated, and you really have to be educated to know what you're doing."