None of these women had a criminal history. They were all raised in abusive homes and victimized by abusive partners. And they all received life sentences.
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Tammy Gamache is in prison for life without parole because of her abusive husband’s crimes.
At the time her abuser murdered a man and shot his wife, 20-year-old Gamache sat in a car, watching in the rearview mirror, having been coerced with a gun to her back to accompany her violent husband in a robbery. Tammy Gamache never held a gun, never threatened the couple, and had been told that if she did as he said, nobody would get hurt.
It wasn’t the first time Richard Gamache had pointed a gun at her.
Just nine months before, after he took out a gun and forced her into a truck before he deliberately crashed it, the doctor who examined Tammy said her injuries didn’t look like a car accident.
On the day he nearly pushed her down a mineshaft, she thought the police would never believe her without witnesses.
When he raped her and she screamed through the gag forced into her mouth, no one intervened.
She tried repeatedly to get away, a report by domestic violence expert Nancy Lemon shows, once refusing to get in the car with Richard as he and his friend stalked her in a pickup truck. She told him to leave when he showed up at her job at a railroad station. When she said he and his friend Andre Ramnanan were not welcome at the home where she lived with another family, Richard called her a bitch. He never stopped harassing, threatening and intimidating her. And saying no was never enough.
From inside the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, Tammy Gamache, now 49 years old, told Ms. in an email she still feels angry over the times she couldn’t speak out back then. But then “there’s the times that I did speak up, did do something, and I’m amazed that I’m still alive.”
When she turned Richard down, he kept coming back. When she refused his demands to come with him, he threatened to kill her dog Rocky, who he tied to his car with a noose around his neck.
“There’s the times that I did speak up, did do something, and I’m amazed that I’m still alive.”
When he showed up in the middle of the night at the hospital where she was recovering from the car accident he purposely caused, Richard put a knife to her throat and said the only way she’d stay alive was by marrying him. On the way to the chapel, he said he’d shoot as many people as he could if she didn’t give in to the marriage. To save herself and others, she did. It was the only way to survive.
“It’s do or die,” said Gamache’s friend Kelly Savage-Rodriguez, an abuse survivor who was previously incarcerated for her husband’s crime and now works as a coordinator with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. “You participate or you’re present or you keep your mouth shut or you’re the one suffering the consequences.” A lot of people don’t realize how often women are blamed for their partners’ crimes, she told Ms. “They assume the system is legal, ethical and shows compassion … The truth is that it’s not like that.”
As she waits in a prison cell, Tammy still suffers from the back injury Richard caused when he sped downhill, let go of the wheel and flipped the truck he had forced her into at gunpoint. “Physically, I’m always in pain,” Tammy wrote to Ms.
Evidence of Tammy Gamache’s abuse was never presented during her trial. It wasn’t until after she had been convicted that psychologist and domestic violence expert Geraldine Stahly told the court at sentencing about Tammy’s painful childhood, from witnessing a fight between her parents at one year old after which her father left and never came back, to a mother who abandoned her.
But Stahly was never allowed to tell the jury about the abuse inflicted by Tammy’s husband Richard, according to a 2018 application to commute her sentence. “They didn’t have any idea the extent to which she was terrorized and controlled by this man,” Stahly told Ms.
On the night her abuser’s crime would change her life, Tammy began to bleed. Pregnant, she was losing her baby. Weeks later, she miscarried inside the county jail.
Gamache isn’t the only survivor of domestic violence in prison for life for someone else’s crimes.
None of these three women had a criminal history. They were all raised in abusive homes and victimized by abusive partners. And they all received life sentences.
Nancy Rish: A Life Ripped Apart
Nancy Rish had no knowledge that her abusive boyfriend planned to kidnap a prominent Illinois businessman for ransom and bury him in a box. But she was convicted of murder and aggravated kidnapping anyway. No physical evidence tied her to the crime, and the perpetrator has said in multiple affidavits and a 2015 deposition that she knew nothing of his plot.
“She would never go for anything like that,” said Danny Edwards, Nancy’s former boyfriend, in a videotaped deposition.
But Nancy remains imprisoned after nearly 34 years.
She was just 24 years old in 1986 when she met the man who would later cause her to spend her life in prison. That same year, her home state of Illinois would recognize that the legal system had failed to protect victims of domestic violence. Decades later, those failures remain.
About a year into their relationship, Rish was terrified. She shook and sobbed for hours with her childhood friend Lori Brault, telling her that Edwards had begun to push and shove her, Brault said in a 2017 affidavit. She knew she needed to get away, but she felt trapped by fear for her safety. What would Edwards do to her and her son if they tried to leave? He had a gun. She had nowhere else to go. And Edwards knew it, Rish wrote in an affidavit.
Like Tammy Gamache, Rish had tried to escape. In the summer of 1987, she stayed with a friend. But Edwards followed her there, driving around the block and asking for her, she said in her affidavit.
Even at a young age, abuse felt familiar to Nancy. Her father had repeatedly attacked her mother, chasing her while throwing knives, hitting her with a belt, and strangling her with a cord. He started drinking before Nancy was born. She and her three sisters “were all afraid to be alone with him,” her sister Lori Guimond said in a 2017 affidavit.
Decades later, when Edwards told her she and her son Ben would be killed by a mysterious stranger if she didn’t drive him and later pick him up in a remote area, all she knew was that their lives were in danger. When she tried to ask Edwards what he was doing and why he couldn’t drive himself, he threatened to kill her, her son and himself, Rish said in the affidavit.
“I’ll blow your brains out. If anything goes wrong, we’re all gonna be dead anyway.”
“I’ll blow your brains out,” her affidavit said. “If anything goes wrong, we’re all gonna be dead anyway.”
According to both physical evidence and Edwards himself, Nancy had no idea what he was planning. All she wanted was to stay alive.
“I just want to say,” Rish told the court before she was sent away to spend her life in prison, “I am not guilty of these charges and never was.”
Justice Fails Nancy Rish
“Young lady, do you realize your next seat could be the electric chair?” a detective told her when she arrived at the police station after her arrest, according to Rish’s trial testimony and her clemency petition. (The Illinois attorney general’s office and a detective involved in the case deny this.)
From that point on, police and prosecution would use unreliable witnesses and spun narratives to implicate Rish in Edwards’s crime. On the day of the kidnapping, Rish attended a Mary Kay cosmetics event and seemed enthusiastic, eager to learn, and not nervous or distracted at all, according to Maxine Shores, who hosted the event at her home. But the prosecutor’s office didn’t want to hear it. When Shores called to report that Rish had acted normally that evening, she was told, “We don’t need your testimony,” Shores wrote in a 2015 affidavit.
“I felt like they did not want to know the truth,” she wrote.
Nancy Rish petitioned for relief under a 2016 Illinois law that allows domestic violence victims to be resentenced if they can prove that evidence of abuse was not presented at their sentencing and that their participation in the crime was directly related to it, but so far, she remains trapped in prison.
As she prepares to apply for clemency, Rish has the support of former correctional officers and other current and formerly incarcerated women. These women describe how she helped them when they needed food, comfort or kindness, how she mentored them in the dog training and grooming program she has been part of for 18 years, how she helped them study for classes, how she listened when they told her their own stories of abuse.
“Domestic abuse is the scariest and most toxic thing that can happen to you. You feel stuck and you will do anything not to get hit again, to not be talked down to,” wrote Kaylee Kindhart, who was incarcerated with Nancy, in a letter this year to Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker. “Just as any parent Nancy did what she felt was right to protect her son and she didn’t know what Danny was doing … I would give anything to let her have freedom after over 33 years.”
“Domestic abuse is the scariest and most toxic thing that can happen to you. You feel stuck and you will do anything not to get hit again, to not be talked down to.”
Rish’s sister Lori Guimond remembers waiting anxiously at home on Christmas Day in 1961 for baby Nancy to be born. She remembers reaching her arm through Nancy’s crib to soothe her to sleep. And she remembers the 4-year-old who always wanted to tag along with her big sister. That child, “the sweetheart of the neighborhood,” as Guimond describes her, would eventually be entrapped by two abusive partners, and criminalized by the court system.
“Criminal law just to a great extent was developed based on a male point of view … no appreciation for such things as compulsion, being afraid and doing something because you’re afraid of what’s gonna happen if you don’t,” says Rish’s attorney Margaret Byrne. “There are a lot of women in prison who shouldn’t be there.”
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Renee Matthews: Finding Home
Just a year ago, Renee Matthews was one of those women. April 6 will mark the one year anniversary of her freedom after almost 25 years in prison for someone else’s crime.
When Matthews first met her husband, he seemed like a gentle man with a nice smile, she told Ms. They would go out to the airport with her daughter Jocelyn and watch the planes fly over, or they would all spend time at the park. They married, moved in together, and after about a year, he began to hurt her.
He threw her down the stairs, kicked her off the bed, and punched her in the shoulder and the chest, Matthews told Ms.
It was the day he threatened her with a shotgun, vowing to kill her and her daughter, that Renee knew everything had changed, she said.
She confided in her brother Kevin about her husband’s abuse, and without Renee’s knowledge, he decided to take matters into his own hands, according to state legislative testimony and Matthews’ attorney, Leigh Goodmark.
Kevin shot Matthews’s husband, leaving him wounded but alive, and Renee was accused of being part of a plot to have him killed. Represented at the time by a lawyer she barely knew, according to Matthews, the abuse was only hinted at during her trial.
One witness described a “fight relationship” between Renee and her husband, in which he threatened her with a gun. Others spoke of her fear of going home to him, where on the day of the shooting she would find a “ransacked” house in disarray after he pulled clothes from drawers and overturned a table, according to transcripts of Renee and Kevin Matthews’s trial.
At her sentencing hearing, Renee’s pastor, Klemona Charlot, who had been like a mother to her for 14 years, told the court that Renee is a “kind and considerate person.”
“The fact is it is not a part of her nature for her to be called cold-blooded and calculating. That is not the Renee I know,” Charlot said.
But on that day, July 9, 1996, the judge told Renee she’d be imprisoned for life.
Until last year, when Goodmark, a professor at the University of Maryland law school’s Gender Violence Clinic who had been working with Renee for several years, helped her get released. She knew Renee had been unjustly implicated in her brother’s crime.
Survivors like Renee, Nancy and Tammy have “already suffered at the hands of these people,” Goodmark told Ms. None of the goals of punishment are met by keeping these women in prison, she said.
Today, Matthews is living in a group home with other women working to overcome traumas of the past. She hopes to become an advocate for other abuse survivors, and create an online talk show to highlight women’s stories. A talented illustrator, she painted a Fred Flintstone drawing and a city nightscape that hung on the walls in the group home for women where she has lived in her first year free in decades. A better day is possible, she told Ms., and survivors shouldn’t give up hope. There was a time when Matthews saw no way out, but after being released last year, she has found a job at Johns Hopkins University and continues to build her new life every day.
“You can survive, you will survive,” she told Ms.
Legislation for Change
In some states, including California and Oregon, new legislation may mean hope for other survivors like Tammy and Nancy.
A California bill could reform sentencing guidelines in some felony murder cases like Tammy Gamache’s, that involve circumstances such as kidnapping, robbery or arson. The bill would give judges the option to provide an alternative to the death penalty or life without parole for those who weren’t directly involved in a murder and never intended for anyone to die, and it could also help people currently in prison request a new sentence.
In light of racial bias that results in people of color being disproportionately incarcerated, “the need for change is compelling,” California state senator and bill author Dave Cortese told Ms.
In Oregon, domestic violence survivors might find relief in a new bill, introduced in January, that would allow for either a reduced sentence or resentencing if evidence showed that domestic violence was a significant contributing factor in the crime.
“We penalize the victim over and over again in this system. That’s unacceptable,” said Oregon state Representative Tawna Sanchez at a legislative hearing on the bill last Tuesday.
New York, which has a nearly identical law that took effect in 2019, has released some domestic violence survivors from prison, including Patrice Smith, a human trafficking survivor, Mulumba Kazigo, who served 14 years for fighting back against his abusive father, and Tanisha Davis, a mom who was separated from her son for eight years after defending herself against her abusive boyfriend.
Other efforts, known as Second Look laws, could help survivors with long sentences get out after they’ve served 10 or 15 years in prison, giving them a chance to make their case before a judge.
Washington D.C.’s legislation, expected to take effect in May, is considered a model law. It will make people who were convicted of crimes before age 25 eligible for resentencing after 15 years if a judge determines they aren’t a danger to public safety.
Last year, as the Maryland legislature debated its own Second Look legislation, a law student, Sydney Goetz, from the University of Maryland’s Gender Violence Clinic, shared Renee’ Matthews’s story at a legislative hearing. Goetz testified that she had asked Renee what she would like to say to the lawmakers.
“Just ask them to remember the humanity in us,” she told Goetz.
The bill died in Maryland’s House Judiciary Committee.
Waiting 28 Years for Freedom
During her time behind bars, Tammy Gamache has crocheted blankets for children’s hospitals and for the elderly. She has donated food and art supplies to local shelters and schools, and written letters to the children of incarcerated mothers. She is taking college communications courses, studying business and international studies. She has used her education to help other incarcerated women learn to read and write.
With her friend Kelly Savage-Rodriguez, she made jewelry that Kelly would send home to her family. She watered the garden outside the prison visiting area so that family members could see it isn’t all darkness behind those walls.
But how much is enough for her to be free?
“All my learning, knowledge in self and insight into my past,” Gamache wrote to Ms., “is for a future not promised.”
ABOUT NATALIE SCHREYER
Natalie Schreyer is a freelance journalist and executive producer of the documentary film “And So I Stayed.”