Law students aid abused female prisoners


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University of Iowa law students are helping to free abused women from Iowa prisons.

And in the case of Sheila Schertz, they succeeded. On Jan. 14, former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver commuted her 30-year prison sentence for allegedly helping her husband commit a kidnapping and a murder.

Former UI law students Allison McCarthy and Amy Halbur spent nearly two years helping end her prison sentence, according to a UI press release.

“I am so very happy and excited for Sheila,” said McCarthy, who graduated in 2009, in the press release. “Her story is incredible, and I hope this brings more attention to how domestic violence affects women and how abused persons make decisions.”

The commutation came after evidence suggesting she was pressured into her crimes by a domestically abusive husband.

In a partnership with the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Skylark Project began three years ago as a way to get UI law students in the world of advocacy law for abused women, said Linda McGuire, associate UI law dean and overseer of the school’s citizen lawyer program.

In that time, 16 students have assisted with seven cases, and four are currently in the program. They’ve lost only one case.

McCarthy said in the release that she was, at times, frustrated by the slow moving pace of the parole board, which first has to approve a sentence commutation before the governor. But in the end, she said it paid off to see Schertz go free.

“What our law students do is help lessen the burden of what female prisoners would have to handle if they went it alone,” McGuire said. “Attempting to commute a sentence is by no means an easy task.”

Law students who take part in the program meet with their clients three times during the semester, McGuire said, helping them recall details of the case and experiences with domestic violence.

“What our students are doing is helping the female client make a stronger case,” McGuire said. “It has really made a difference in the way the women feel.”

Releasing prisoners from their sentences is rare in Iowa, said Elizabeth Albright Battles, the attorney for the Skylark Project. There have only been three women’s sentences commuted in Iowa since the early 1990s, and all were victims of domestic abuse.

McGuire said she would like to expand the program, noting that the demand for involvement that is typically double the cases available for students to assist with.

Being a nonprofit organization can make expansion difficult, Albright Battles said, but working with more students would help the number of women assisted.

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