Convicted murderers granted parole by Missouri board

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The attorney for one of two women who will be released from prison after serving time in the killings of their abusive husbands said that the decision was long overdue.

The state Board of Probation and Parole decided Monday to release Lynda Branch and Shirley Lute.

Mary Beck, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said Tuesday that she was "ecstatic" that her client, Branch, will soon be free.

"It's really long overdue. We're really grateful that we got this to happen today," she said. "But it really should've happened a long time ago. We've been working on this for nine years."

The state Supreme Court already had ordered Lute freed and told the state parole board to consider whether Branch also should be released.

After parole hearings Monday, the board decided both should be released on parole as soon as possible, Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Hauswirth said. He estimated it could take three to five days to complete paperwork to release them, but Beck said she expects it could be a week or two.

Former Gov. Bob Holden commuted the women's sentences in late 2004, just before leaving office. But they have remained behind bars because the parole board voted to deny them parole. The board said releasing them "would depreciate the seriousness" of their crimes.

Holden did not shorten their sentences to time already served, as he could have, leading their attorneys to ask the state's highest court to set them free.

The Supreme Court ordered hearings before the parole board for both women and said the board could not consider the circumstances of their crimes because Holden already had.

Both women's cases were handled by the Missouri Battered Women's Clemency Coalition, a group that includes professors and students at the state's four law schools.

Beck estimated that another six women in similar situations are still imprisoned in Missouri seeking clemency.

On April 17, the Supreme Court ordered the board to determine conditions Lute must follow while on parole. The court also said that when deciding whether to grant Branch parole, the board could look only at her conduct in prison and whether she is ready to re-enter society.

Lute, 76, has been imprisoned since 1981, when she was convicted of aiding her son in the Monroe County murder of her husband, Melvin Lute, whom she claims physically tortured and mentally tormented her.

Branch, 54, was convicted of fatally shooting her husband, Raymond, in 1986 at their Cole County home. Branch contends she got control of the gun only after her husband first threatened to shoot her and her daughter.

Both have been serving life sentences in prison in Chillicothe.

The women attended parole hearings at the state prison in Jefferson City conducted by board chairman William Seibert Jr. and two hearing officers. The full parole board met afterward to consider the cases.

The hearings and the board's deliberations were closed to the public. Hauswirth said he could not disclose whether the women must follow any special conditions while on parole.

All parolees are expected to follow a standard set of rules, including not breaking the law, getting permission to travel to other states, reporting as required to the parole officer and not using illegal drugs or owning weapons.

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