The state Board of Pardons and Paroles receives roughly 1,000 applications annually from defendants seeking a pardon from their conviction on their criminal record.
Of those 1,000, none are quite like the case of Bonnie Jean Foreshaw, a convicted murderer whose pardon application was granted a hearing scheduled for this fall.
Foreshaw has had about 20 different lawyers since 1986 when she was arrested for shooting and killing a pregnant woman.
Mary Werblin, a former corporate lawyer who is managing Foreshaw's efforts to get out of prison, said: "Everything that could possibly go wrong in a case went wrong" for Foreshaw.
Foreshaw, now 65, shot and killed Joyce Amos near a gas station at 12:20 a.m. March 27, 1986 on Albany Avenue in Hartford. The shooting took place after a dispute with a man named Hector Freeman, who offered her a drink earlier that night at a Jamaican Progressive League event in Hartford.
Foreshaw, a self-proclaimed Rastafarian who was raped and had a child at age 12, turned down the man's advances. Freeman, however, followed her to her car 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 and reached for something in his pocket. Fearing for her safety, Foreshaw drew and fired her gun. Freeman pulled the pregnant Amos in front of him, using her as a shield. Amos was killed and Foreshaw was charged with murder.
Werblin said there was a significant reason why Foreshaw was armed with a gun that night.
"There was never any attempt for Bonnie to go out and shoot anybody," said Werblin. "She had three terrible marriages. She was a truly battered woman. She was almost dead from one husband who bashed her in the head with a baseball bat."
In fact, following a beating by her third husband, Foreshaw began to carry a gun for protection. Her third husband had been stalking her around the time of the Amos shooting. With all of that in mind, Werblin said, Foreshaw should never have been charged with murder.
"She should've been charged with manslaughter," said Werblin.
Judge Jon Blue, a former public defender, who handled Foreshaw's first appeal, agreed. When Blue looked into the trial and conviction, he was appalled at the lawyering, enough so that he penned a memo to the public defender's chief appellate lawyer at the time, Joette Katz, who went on to become a state Supreme Court justice and is now commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families.
In the memo, Blue cited all of the perceived instances of ineffective assistance of counsel by Foreshaw's trial lawyer, Dennis O'Toole, who had never previously handled a murder case.
Blue wrote that O'Toole failed to challenge a ''highly questionable'' confession Foreshaw gave to police, a confession she refused to sign.
"Det. Murdock has advised me of my Rights I don't wish to waive my Rights and sign this statement," wrote Foreshaw after being interrogated between 2 a.m. and 7 a.m.
He also said O'Toole failed to present an effective mental state defense.
"Mr. O'Toole's performance is, depending on one's point of view, either disturbing or downright shocking," Blue wrote.
A psychiatrist testified at the trial that Foreshaw had post-traumatic stress disorder from being abused as a child and then in two abusive marriages. The psychiatrist testified that Foreshaw was scared that Freeman would beat her like her husbands had and panicked, firing the gun before she could really think about what she was doing.
Blue wrote in the memo that O'Toole "bungled" his direct examination of the psychiatrist and failed to present many pieces of evidence about Foreshaw's mental state.
O'Toole has since retired from the public defender's office.
Foreshaw was sentenced to 45 years in prison and is set to be freed in 2017, but her lawyers are seeking her immediate release.
Werblin said initially Foreshaw's team of lawyers, which includes Clinton J. Roberts, Richard Emanuel, and Chief Public Defender Susan O. Storey, filed a motion for a reduction in sentence, which was filed in late 2011. In order for that motion to proceed, a state prosecutor must approve. About a year later, Hartford State's Attorney Gail Hardy denied the request.
The lawyers then filed a clemency application with the state Board of Pardons and Paroles. A clemency, or pardon, said Werblin, would free Foreshaw from prison for the remainder of her term.
That request was also initially turned down by board Chairwoman Erika Tindill. However, the initial request did not include Blue's memo.
"Had it not been for the surfacing of that memo, which we had no idea about, we would not have reconsidered her case,'' Tindill said. Tindill said she was stunned the memo wasn't presented with Foreshaw's clemency hearing application.
Emanuel told Tindill at the hearing that his main argument for clemency had been Foreshaw's efforts to rehabilitate herself because a judge had rejected the argument that O'Toole had been ineffective in an appeal by Foreshaw.
While incarcerated at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Foreshaw studied writing with Connecticut-based writer Wally Lamb. Her work was published in two books featuring York inmates' writings that were edited by Lamb.
Foreshaw has been a surrogate mother and grandmother to many troubled women and teen-age girls while incarcerated. She has worked as a teacher's aide for women in the prison.
Now, Werblin and Foreshaw's other lawyers are hopeful this may finally be the opportunity – after numerous other failed appeals — to bring some justice to a woman they believe should not still be behind bars.
Werblin credits the persistence of Marguerite Moore, an advocate for victims of domestic violence who has supported Foreshaw's appeal efforts financially since 1992.
"I would never give up on this case," said Werblin. "It's such a miscarriage of justice I can't sleep at night thinking about it."
Robert Farr, a former chair of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles said the board typically receives 1,000 clemency applications each year. He said about half of those requests are granted a hearing. But from there, Farr said, about 70 percent of those cases getting a hearing result in a pardon.
The wrinkle here, however, is that Foreshaw isn't the typical pardon applicant.
"The typical case would be someone got arrested. They sold drugs when they were a teenager," explained Farr. "Now 10 years later they still have a record of being a conviction felon. We had cases of people who came in 35 years later. They've been successful in their community… Time is a major factor."
With the clemency petition – which can't be filed until at least three years after a misdemeanor conviction or five years after felony — the applicant can either have their criminal record completely expunged, such that there is no record of it or could receive a commuted sentence. For instance, a 50-year sentence might get reduced by the Board to 20 years.
"You still have a record of doing 20 years. That's not expunged," said Farr.
Further, Farr said the Board is often reluctant to grant relief to someone who was involved in a crime where a death resulted, as is the case with Foreshaw. Farr said serious crimes like murder are not eligible for parole. So Foreshaw can only apply for a pardon, which he said, if granted, would release the person back into society with no supervision. Whereas parole, he explained, allows by statute the option to release the person with some sort of supervision.
"The Board was reluctant to grant or erase the record of someone with say [a] manslaughter [conviction,]" Farr said. Statistics show that persons released back into society with some sort of supervision are much more successful than those without it, Farr said. He's hopeful that the state Legislature may one day address what he described as a "flaw" in the pardons system.•
The Associated Press contributed to this report.