In 1986, Bonnie Jean Foreshaw, the first person to shoot and kill a pregnant woman in the state of Connecticut, was sentenced to 45 years in prison without the possibility of parole. We believe it is the longest sentence given to a woman in state history. Foreshaw, now 64 years old, is seeking a reduction in sentence from 45 years to 40 years. She had been denied — for the second time — even a hearing on a modest proposal for a sentence reduction. A hearing request was denied in 2007 and, again this spring. She is now being afforded the opportunity for a clemency hearing before the Board of Pardons and Parole, which will take place in October 2013.
The board attributed its change of heart to a memo written by Judge Jon Blue, when he was a public defender, that Foreshaw's trial attorney, another public defender, had been incompetent. In that memo, Blue expressed his opinion that Foreshaw's trial attorney made several mistakes that resulted in her conviction. Richard Emanuel represented Foreshaw on appeal, and John Williams represented her in her habeas corpus petition. Neither attempt brought any justice or relief to Foreshaw who now, again represented by Emanuel, is seeking clemency largely based on her efforts to rehabilitate herself. Because a judge had rejected the argument that trial counsel had been ineffective, and because the board's website expressly states that clemency is not a way to address mistakes at trial, Emanuel had not relied on that claim in seeking relief.
At this point, regardless of the legal rationale, Ms. Foreshaw deserves to have her prison sentence reduced. Her story is compelling. Ms. Foreshaw gave birth to her first child after being raped at age 12. She was beaten and sexually abused from childhood. Indeed, as a child and throughout three marriages Foreshaw had been subjected to years of abuse. Following the beating by her third husband, Foreshaw began to carry a gun for protection. She worked as a machinist for Wiremold Company in Hartford for 10 years, was a shop steward, bought a house in Bloomfield and cared for her children.
Tragically, her third husband continued to stalk her, and so one night in 1986 she was armed when she stopped for a drink at the Jamaican Progressive League in Hartford. A man named Hector Freeman offered her a drink, and although she declined, he followed her to her car. Freeman asked why Foreshaw thought she was "too good for a drink" with him. Freeman said again and again he was going to f— her up. Freeman then came toward her, while reaching into his pocket. Fearing for her safety, Foreshaw drew and fired her gun. Unfortunately, Freeman pulled a pregnant woman in front of him. He testified that he used the woman, Joyce Amos, as a shield. Foreshaw's gun killed Amos. Foreshaw was charged with intentional murder.
At her trial, Foreshaw admitted that she had fired the fatal shot, but claimed that she had done so while under the influence of extreme emotional disturbance. In support of this affirmative defense, she presented expert testimony from Anne E. Price, a psychiatrist, who testified that Foreshaw had experienced an abusive childhood and had endured three abusive marriages. Price explained that these experiences had affected Foreshaw's state of mind at the time of the shooting. She further explained that she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition similar to that suffered by certain war veterans. As the Supreme Court related in its opinion rejecting her claims on appeal, "the condition is caused by a traumatic event, such as persistent abuse, not within the range of usual human experiences. The trauma may cause a person to overreact to relatively benign events or to respond to a situation of danger in an irrational way." Price testified that, when Freeman confronted Foreshaw, she had become scared that he would beat her as her husbands had done in the past. As a result, she became so overwhelmed by panic that she reacted irrationally and impulsively, firing her gun before she could really think about what she was doing.
On appeal, Foreshaw claimed that the trial court improperly instructed the jury on the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance. The basis of the defendant's claim was the court's inclusion in its charge of the following sentence: "Now, to determine whether the defendant has established the affirmative defense of extreme emotional disturbance by a preponderance of the evidence as a mitigation of murder, to manslaughter in the first degree, you must find first, that the emotional disturbance is not a mental disease or defect that rises to the level of insanity, as defined by our statutes."
She argued that the court's instruction misstated the controlling law, confused the jury, improperly added to her burden of proof by requiring that the defendant prove that her level of mental disease or defect did not rise to the level of insanity, and failed to include a statutory definition of insanity. Because she failed to object to the instruction, the Supreme Court refused to consider the claim, concluding that it did not raise a constitutional error or merit review under the plain error rule.
In her 26 years at York, Foreshaw has been a surrogate mother and grandmother to many troubled women and teenage girls. She has been active in Literacy Volunteers, Alternatives to Violence and the Hospice Program. Guards call her a model inmate and a source of wisdom. "In all my years of working with offenders and ex-offenders," retired York counselor Ann Koletsky wrote, "I cannot think of another incarcerated woman in whom I have had such confidence that her resettlement into society will be crime free and successful for all of us."
Dr. Evan Stark, a professor at Rutgers and an expert on domestic violence, has written that Foreshaw "acted in fear of her life … and her actions constituted a self defense … her understanding of the danger she faced and her response were drawn from an astute and experience-tested understanding of situations in which men use violence and control to hurt or dominate women." Indeed, one of her husbands beat Foreshaw with a baseball bat and stabbed her in the neck, landing her in intensive care.
Dr. Donald Grayson, a psychiatrist, agrees that she "represents no danger to others or self and has a good deal to offer, in a positive sense, to her family and others in the community." Grayson has agreed to act as a counselor/therapist for Foreshaw upon her release.
Foreshaw wrote of her remorse in a volume of redemptive memoirs, Couldn't Keep It To Myself: "I never lost sight of the fact that I still had my life and Joyce Amos, the lady who tried to help me that night, had lost hers. She had been someone's mother and someone's daughter, same as me. A powerful sadness was closing in. I began to ask myself how I could survive — or if I even wanted to … "
Pick a ground, any ground. Just give her the relief she so deserves. •