Just one week before Karen Kantzler married her husband in the early 1980s, Dr. Paul Kantzler, a radiologist at Henry Ford Hospital, he performed his weekly refrigerator check for spoilage.
“He found some lettuce that had wilted, and I laughed. I thought it was humorous,” Karen Kantzler recounted in a voice so quiet it was difficult to hear during a prison visit with her in July 2017. “He had a fit. He slammed the lettuce on the counter and started jumping up and down and waiving his arms like a little boy. I started giggling – and he rushed to me and picked me up and slammed me down on the slate floor, across the living room. I rammed into an overstuffed chair. The whole side of me all the way was bruised. It was the first major physical attack.
“Before, he would always grab me at the neck by my clothing, and push me against a wall, a tree, bamming me against it, and that would escalate. (Eventually) it became weekly, then every few days, then daily.”
The physical and emotional abuse continued until March 11, 1987, when Karen killed Paul.
Police and prosecutors alleged she shot him while he slept in their bed. Karen asserted it was self-defense, after a day and night of drinking and drug abuse by Paul, which led to hours of continual verbal abuse, including at a neighborhood restaurant, culminating in him yelling at her during the drive home.
“I came into the bedroom. He was in bed,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Can’t we just talk things out not go to bed angry.’ He called me a moron. ‘I’m just going to take care of you before morning, and you’re going to be gone,’” she said he told her. “That scared me. I knew that meant he was going to kill me.”
Karen said she went into their TV room, sipped on a vodka and lemonade, and heard him call her name. She waited to go into the bedroom, “but I got so tired and sleepy, and I went to the bedroom door. He was standing there with a gun in his hand and he grabbed me by my clothes at the neck and pulled me. It happened so fast – I pushed him as he was grabbing me. I think he tripped on a little rug, and he fell on the bed and dropped the gun. I grabbed the gun, and it went off, and I shot him.
“I didn’t mean to shoot him.”
Over the years Karen had spent with Paul, he beat her, broke her ribs, tried to cut off her finger, ruptured her spleen in a motorcycle accident, tried to drown her, caused her to miscarry, held guns to her head, left her blind in one eye and with permanent tremors and shakes from repeated beatings, demeaned her over and over again, and threatened her life.
Unfortunately, once he was dead, she told police and friends he had committed suicide. She claims she was trying to protect his reputation, so he wouldn’t be known as a batterer.
In a trial before Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Norman Lippitt in 1988, Karen was found guilty of second degree murder in the death of Paul, and given a sentence of life imprisonment, which Lippitt said, under sentencing guidelines at the time, he believed meant she would be released in 10 years.
“It was my understanding if I sentenced her to life, she would be paroled in 10 years,” Lippitt said recently. “Typically, people were paroled in 10 to 12 years. I chose life (as the sentence) because she would have been out in 10, because she deserved parole. There was some spousal abuse, but I don’t know how cognizant I was then about it. What the hell did we know about spousal abuse? It wasn’t on our radar screen (in 1988).
“But changes in administrations changed the tone of sentences a lot over the years.”
Lippitt, now in private practice, has since spoken before the Michigan Parole Board, noting his error in sentencing and advocating for her parole. “She shouldn’t be in jail, and she’s in jail.”
An appeal in 1993 before subsequent Oakland Circuit Court Judge Barry Howard, after Lippitt stepped down, was overturned.
“I overturned the conviction based upon her being abused throughout her life, including her marriage,” said Howard, now a private judge in Bloomfield Hills overseeing primarily mediation cases. “She was a victim of battered spouse syndrome; that had her counsel been more effective, the likelihood her life sentence would have been reduced; the sentence was not what the (original) judge intended; and the psychological report indicated that Ms. Kantzler was not a threat to society.
“What I did was overturned her original sentence; she plead again, and I gave her three to 10 years, which in essence was time served,” Howard explained.
However, prosecutors objected and appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which reinstated Kantzler’s original life sentence.
Almost 30 years and numerous appeals later, Kantzler continues to remain incarcerated with over 2,000 other female inmates by Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) in the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypslanti
“I just wanted a happy life,” Karen Kantzler said recently. “I just wanted him to agree to stop (the abuse). I even asked him to go to counseling because I wanted to go. He said ‘no’ because it (the abuse) was (due to) my human frailties.”
By Karen’s own account from transcripts from the 1993 court opinion, her father was an alcoholic who had sexually abused her from the time she was eight until she was 21. She said attempts to report this activity to her mother only resulted in her mother placing blame on her for this activity. It reported she was also raped by a 14-year-old boy when she was seven or eight, and sexually abused by her uncle.
“This sequence contributed to feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and low self-esteem that have plagued Karen most of her life,” according to psychologist Lawrence Cohen in the transcript. “She is drawn to dominant, narcissistic, and aggressive men, whom she does not take time to discover much about, but rather... became involved rather impulsively.”
Karen is not alone. According to the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project at University of Michigan, police in the U.S. encounter more cases of domestic violence each year than all other forms of violence combined, with approximately 85 percent of victims of partner violence being the female. Each year, at least 1,200 women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends – fully one-third of all female murder victims in the United States – while less than four percent of all male murder victims are killed by a female partner.
In Michigan, Carol Jacobsen, director of the Michigan Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, said it is estimated at least 110 women killed their spouse/abusers and are serving long or life sentences, while another 60 to 80 killed someone else who had been abusing them, such as their boyfriend while they were a teenager, and are currently serving long or life prison sentences. There are no national statistics for how many women are incarcerated for killing their partner after being the victim of abuse.
Kantzler is not the only woman from an affluent, Oakland County background to find herself behind bars for killing her husband after years of abuse.
Nancy Seaman was a successful, award-winning Farmington Hills elementary school teacher who was also successful at something else – hiding the daily beatings she received at the hands of her husband, Bob, which increased after he lost his high-paying job in 1995 at Borg Warner. As her career in middle age blossomed, his appeared to nosedive, with an investment in a batting cage becoming his life, and other investments turning sour – to the point that in the months before his murder in May 2004, mortgage payments and other bills weren’t being paid.
“In my case, people couldn’t believe that an educated woman with a good job could be an abused wife,” said the self-possessed and poised Seaman, also currently housed at the Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility after being found guilty of first degree murder in Bob’s death, which Seaman continues to maintain was self-defense. She was sentenced to life with no chance of parole in 2005, after a jury did not believe her assertions of self-defense, but rather that she had premeditated her husband’s murder. “But you can be successful in your career and be totally helpless in your personal life – and be more vulnerable because you’re afraid to reach out. (I believed) if I reached out for help other teachers would think less of me; parents wouldn’t want their students in my class –‘she has an abusive husband, he might show up in class.’ I was so private about my personal life, I tried to camouflage my private life. I was so ashamed. (I later learned) my coworkers suspected. I showed up with bruises all the time, my arm in a sling, black eyes, they could see I was crying.”
“Abusive relationships can be more binding than loving relationships,” said Dr. Gerald Shiener M.D., a psychiatrist with a practice in Birmingham. “These men have an underlying inability to express anger and keep a lot bottled up, and when it comes out it comes out in an unprecedented way. They’re involved with women who have a need to be in an abusive relationship, either because of a pattern or abusive model in their family of origin or having learned that love and attention are contingent upon being in pain – that the only way to get love is if it is tied with suffering.
“For these people, usually women, if they’re not being beaten, it seems like no one cares, and that becomes the model of the relationship. They’re emotionally interdependent. It’s not money or the kids,” Shiener continued. But there can be a chronic danger that develops. “It seems like the only way out is to kill her abuser.”
In a piece titled “Battered women, homicide convictions and sentencing,” for the Hastings Women’s Law Journal, Carol Jacobsen, Kammy Mizga, and Lynn D’Orio of Women’s Justice and Clemency Project wrote, “Most women who kill do so to defend themselves from men who have repeatedly beaten them. Despite the very real dangers that many women live with on a daily basis, those who defend themselves against batterers are given no special consideration by the criminal/legal system if they are forced to kill. In fact, there is evidence that such women often face greater punishment than other defendants.”
According to a fact sheet on battered women in prison citing the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the average prison sentence of men who kill their women partners is two to six years. However, women who kill their male partners are sentenced on average to 15 years, despite the fact that most women who kill do so in self-defense. Further, it stated that men tend to be aggressors in homicide cases even when the homicides are committed by women. In a survey of nearly 10,000 murder cases, 90 percent were perpetrated by men, and 10 percent by women.
The justification for a self-defense defense may come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reported that most murders of women involve domestic violence after analyzing data from 18 states, and finding that of 10,018 female homicides between 2003 and 2014, fully 55 percent – more than half – involved circumstances of known domestic violence. In 93 percent of those cases, the female victims were killed by current or former boyfriends, husbands or lovers. The CDC reported that three women a day are murdered by an intimate partner, and in many cases, children and others are also killed.
Women who kill their intimate partners often feel they have no other recourse, that it will be “him or me,” and that they are in imminent danger of being killed.
“When men kill, they are (often) terrified of the woman leaving. When women kill, it’s usually more of an ongoing crisis, where they have no other out,” said Shiener. “Often these men are very controlling. They will kill or beat the women if they leave or go to shelters. The men are petrified of the women leaving.”
Emily Matuszczak, senior program director at Haven, a non-profit organization for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse in Pontiac, concurred. “The biggest, number one fear, that people minimize, is that if she attempts to leave, she will be killed. In essence, if she stays, she will be killed, or if she leaves, he says, ‘I’ll kill the kids,’ or it’s a murder-suicide.
“Leaving doesn’t stop the violence. It’s the most dangerous time for a victim,” she continued. “It’s when an abuser escalates and attempts to regain control – ‘If I can’t have her, no one can.’ There’s the desperation of the abuser and the abused. The abused woman doesn’t see any other way out to survive.”
Haven, which has a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week crisis and support line for anyone in need or who knows a victim, also has a shelter which sees about 250 women and children a year, Matuszczak said. Unfortunately, “Haven runs at full capacity 365 days a year,” she said, noting “that does not get at the root cause of the violence.”
A bigger problem is the multiple barriers, both physical and emotional, facing the victim when violence in a relationship has gone on for a long time. The individual has usually become isolated, both physically and emotionally. “The batterer has so much control over the person who is isolated,” Matuszczak noted. Financially, they take all control, “and the batterer has threatened you’ll be on the streets. Often, the victim does not know where to turn because she has been experiencing emotional abuse. Feeling helpless, they may feel they’re in an emotional bind.”
That was certainly the case with Karen Kantzler, who was a radiology technician at Henry Ford Hospital when she first met Paul, then a a radiology resident. Over time, he convinced her to quit her job, that her attempts at getting an MBA were too time consuming and was taking too much time from him, and she turned over her lump sum retirement check to him, as well as the title to her vehicle. “Now everything was dependent upon him. I had to sell dog food to neighbors to get enough money to pay for milk and groceries,” she said.
She said she reached out to the shelter at Haven at one point, but it was full. She never had the emotional strength to reach out again.
Nancy Seaman was in the opposite position as she embarked on a career, but with ultimately the same result. After Bob lost his job, Nancy said the abuse got much worse. She had approached the police twice over the years, but felt Bob was being protected rather than her. She never reached out to a woman’s shelter, like Haven, thinking it was only for “poor women without a home.”
“He was angry his career had gone down in flames, and I had money to gain independence and options,” Nancy said, noting and blaming herself, “If that hadn’t happened, we would probably still be going on as it always had.”
The tipping point appeared to be in the winter and spring of 2004, when Nancy had had enough, and decided to get a divorce. “The last six months, I would come home to find things I valued smashed and destroyed, and Post-It notes scribbled all over the house. He was out of control. He tried to burn the house down twice – ‘I’ll burn this house to the ground before I let you have this house,’ he said to me.”
Nancy finally confided in her father, who was stunned to learn of the abuse, and loaned her money for a downpayment on a condo. With her older son, Jeff, and his then-wife Rebecca, she spent weekends secretly looking for a place to live, and bought one in February. The deal was that if Bob were to find out, it was to be for Greg, their younger son, who was graduating from college that May.
On Mother’s Day 2004, Nancy spent the day with Jeff and Rebecca. It was a week before Greg was to graduate, and Bob had disappeared for a week. It turned out he had gone to visit his brother in Arizona, but had not told anyone. And his family didn’t look for him.
He turned up Sunday, and apparently had learned of Nancy’s condo when she and her son and daughter-in-law returned home Sunday evening. An argument ensued, and Jeff and Rebecca left.
According to Nancy, and court records, she and Bob were estranged at this point, sleeping separately in the same home. On Monday morning, when she got up for school, she found Bob at the kitchen counter, in the same clothes he had been in the day before. Apparently, he had not been to bed the night before.
“No coffee cup in front of him, no TV on, no newspaper, just staring, waiting for me. My heart skipped a beat,” Nancy recalled. “It went from bad to worse. ‘I know about the condo, you lying bitch...’ I reached for my keys and purse and across the counter for my ice tea mug. My husband was playing with a knife and cut me on the arm. He had never drawn blood like that before, and I just lost it. I grabbed my keys and ran to the front door – he had taken the key out of the front door, and it wouldn’t open. I headed to the garage, and he was on my heels. I hit the ground and rolled around the tool kart, and I’m on the ground and tools are all over. He’s kicking, twisting and kicking me. He knelt down, pinned me, and I rolled over, and was next to a small generator, and I reached to grab it for leverage, and there was a hatchet on top. I picked up the hatchet and began swinging and once I started I couldn’t stop.”
According to testimony by Oakland County Medical Examiner Ljubisa Dragovic, she hit him 15 times with the hatchet, and then took the knife Bob had used on her arm, and sliced his throat and stabbed him 21 times. He was likely dead from the first blow to his head.
But Nancy didn’t know that, and said she continued to fear for her life, at first unaware that he was dead.
“His falling on me felt like a further attack,” she said.
“When someone finally reacts, they’re in a frenzy, and can’t stop. All of the chemicals flooded her,” said Dr. Lenore Walker EdD of Florida, a forensic psychologist who specializes in gender violence, and developed the concept of battered woman syndrome in 1979. Walker testified at Seaman’s trial. “It’s the autonomic reaction that happens when we believe we’re in danger. It’s self-defense, and it’s a dissociative state. A lot of what happens in these cases is counter-intuitive. Part of the battering relationship is dependency, it’s the belief that you can’t do it on your own. In a healthy relationship there is an interdependency. A coercive relationship is about control, and fosters the dependency.”
After the attack, Nancy cried, took a shower, and went in late to work, where co-workers said they saw her looking disheveled, beaten, and like she had been crying for days.
When she went home, she realized Bob was dead. She bought tarps, tape and cleaning supplies, and wrapped his body and cleaned the home. She also put his body in the back of her vehicle, and told her sons and others, including police who searched for him, she had no idea where he was, that he sometimes disappeared for days.
At trial, it was revealed from a surveillance tape that she had bought a hatchet at Home Depot on Mother’s Day, and then shoplifted one and returned it on Tuesday. She alleged she used an old one in her self-defense attack from Bob, and that she had bought the one on Sunday to do yard work.
After three days, police found Bob’s body, bound up in a tarp in the back of her vehicle, and arrested her. They acknowledged, during testimony at her trial, that they had never seen a garage so clean.
“The only way I could deal with things was to take care of it,” Nancy said. “I shut down. When I saw his body laying there, I could not face the reality.”
“No one sees behind the blinds. I was flooded by letters that they couldn’t believe that Nancy could have done this. But it’s about a form of love that goes with violence. Love is separate from the violence,” Walker continued. “Every battered woman has said – and I’ve interviewed thousands – ‘Get rid of the violence and our relationship is perfect.’ The loving part of him is what they think is real. They think if they can help him, the violent part will drop out. In some ways, there’s co-dependencies.”
Nels Thompson, who was Nancy’s (and Karen’s) prison psychologist at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, in an interview with Kelle Lynn of Justice Thru Storytelling, said he does not believe she premeditatively planned to kill her husband in any way. “In fact, she premeditated how to leave him without confrontation, and safely,” he said. “She went to great lengths to escape, to avoid the very thing that happened, and it didn’t work. Nancy is a non-violent person. She went into excessive killing – called overkill – using excessive force when he attacked her on that fatal day in May 2004, because when a non-violent person is suddenly forced into a fight with fear for their life, they have no idea the force they are exerting, because they’ve never used force or weapons. Sometimes convicted women are convicted of stabbing their victims 15 or 20 times. Of course they were. They had no idea any of those stabbings were having any effect whatsoever. They may empty their gun into their abuser. To them their abuser is so powerful, nothing can stop them in their whole experience. He has overpowered her over and over again.
“They have no intention to be deadly – just to stop the attack.”
The jury at Nancy Seaman’s trial, however, disagreed, and found her guilty of first degree murder, determining she had premeditated the attack.
Larry Kaluzny was her attorney, along with his son Todd, who at the time had just left the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office. “I had Todd question her (to prep her), to make her understand that the hardest thing is to answer yes or no,” Kaluzny recalled. “She couldn’t do it – telling her whole life story. When she answered the first question, I said to Todd, look at that jury – we just lost the case. Their bodies just closed up, because of the way she came across.
“It wasn’t the same Nancy we knew. She kept giving long answers, and they just didn’t have any sympathy for her. We were trying to humanize her, but the jury was just turned off by her, and felt she had an out,” he continued. “I’ve had over 135 murder cases, and this is the one that bothers me.
“I believe 100 percent it was self-defense.”
Former Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jack McDonald did as well. He was the judge on Seaman’s case, and eight months later, with it haunting him, he reduced the jury decision to second degree murder, an unlawful killing without premeditation.
“I was reversed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, 2-1, but I had to live with myself,” McDonald said. “I had never done something like that in 17 years. I bet I had about 18 first degree murder cases. I never gave them a second thought – they were hard core killers. But I wondered – why did she do it? She borrowed money from her father, she’s getting a divorce, she’s out of there. He had been out of town. How would she know he would be there? It didn’t make any sense. I didn’t grant a new trial because there wasn’t sufficient evidence to, but just off the cuff eight months later, I said there wasn’t evidence of premeditation. It was either rage or absolute fear. Either one negates a cool mind where it would be premeditated murder.”
What also contributed to his questioning was a letter he received from Dr. Lenore Walker stating that while she had been allowed to testify about battered woman syndrome, by the rules of Michigan evidence, she could only provide statistics and generalities of traits of a battered wife, and was precluded from providing a conclusion.
“In the Seaman case, I could only speak about domestic violence in general and battered women in general,” noted Walker. “I could not speak that Nancy was abused or fit any pattern of battered woman syndrome. I had some test results from another psychologist, and I wasn’t allowed to introduce that. It was difficult for the jury to fit it together.”
In Michigan, along with California and a few other states, an expert witness can testify to a condition, such as battered spouse syndrome, explaining the symptoms, noting statistics and traits, but cannot make the connection to state that the person on trial has the condition. The People v. Christel, a sexual abuse case which argued before the Michigan Supreme Court in 1995, determined the admissibility of expert testimony regarding battered woman syndrome when offered to a jury to understand the complainants actions and testimony in tolerating abuse over a period of years, but the witness cannot make the connection to the individual herself.
“Battered person syndrome – it’s a diagnosable condition, a psychological condition, so to say it’s not admissible in court is unusual or unique,” noted David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys in Washington DC. “It is up to the court to determine if it is an actual defense, and that is the role of the judge. That is a legal ruling where, at times, the underlying facts of the case don’t support the admissibility of that defense.”
LaBahn said that in California, where he is from, just like in Michigan, “an expert cannot testify to the ultimate conclusion. That is the role and responsibility of the jury.”
He said that despite what defendants and some defense attorneys attest, prosecuting attorneys recognize self-defense. “It’s whether it’s a full and complete defense – ‘I killed him because he was about to kill me.’ The second thing, that concept of imperfect self-defense, moves it down to manslaughter, or involuntary manslaughter. The key with imperfect self-defense, is the mental defense, that takes it out of voluntary into involuntary. The mental state is definitely not murder.
“It’s just traditional homicide law – we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, was that the reason she killed him, or was it to get the house, the car, or to be with another guy.”
He added that often defendants try to utilize a double-edge sword. “If the wife is the defendant, and the husband is the victim, she can’t have the dual defense of, ‘I didn’t do it, but if I did do it, it was because of self-defense because of battered person syndrome.’”
LaBahn said, “The OJ Simpson case (the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1994) brought attention of domestic abuse to the forefront – the facts of battered individuals, and that lead nationally to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), where dollars are spent nationally to train law enforcement, prosecutors, to provide to shelters.”
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, providing $1.6 billion toward investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, it imposed automatic and mandatory restitution on those convicted, and allowed civil redress in cases prosecutors chose not to prosecute. It was reauthorized by bipartisan majorities in Congress in 2000 and 2005. The Act’s 2012 renewal was opposed by conservative Republicans, but was ultimately reauthorized in 2013 after expiring in 2011.
Among the services VAWA provides to women is federal rape shield law; community violence prevention programs; protection for stalking victims; funding for rape crisis centers and hotlines; and legal aid for survivors of domestic violence.
In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation, Public Act 93 in May 2016, that protects domestic violence victims by limiting mediation in domestic relations cases involving protected persons to situations where a court hearing has occurred or when mediation is requested by the protected person.
Protective laws are too late now for Karen Kantzler and Nancy Seaman. Today, each woman is seeking clemency from Governor Snyder, both with the efforts of the Women’s Justice and Clemency Project at University of Michigan. Kantzler has also repeatedly sought to be released from prison. For Seaman, at this point, parole isn’t an option, unless her case is somehow heard again and her sentence reduced from first degree murder, which necessitates life without parole.
After the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed Judge McDonald’s decision of second degree murder and reinstated her life sentence, the Michigan Supreme Court chose to not take her case. It then went to federal court before U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman, who in his opinion found that there had been ineffective counsel in not permitting Walker to testify. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Friedman’s opinion, stating “Battered spouse syndrome is not itself a defense under Michigan law.”
And so she sits, although over the past 30 years approximately eight prisoners per year serving a life sentence have been released through the lifer law or commutation process, the Michigan Department of Corrections said. This is what gives Seaman hope, as she works with the Justice and Clemency Program and other advocates. McDonald and others have written to the governor, advocating for clemency.
Friedman declined to comment for this article, noting that there was always the possibility that the case could come before him again, just as public sentiment for juveniles in jail for life or former cocaine lifer laws have forced legislative and judicial changes.
According to the Michigan Constitution, “The governor shall have power to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons after convictions for all offenses, except cases of impeachment, upon such conditions and limitations.”
According to Carol Jacobsen of the Women’s Justice and Clemency Project, of the last three gubernatorial administrations, only Jennifer Granholm granted any clemencies – a total of 10 over eight years.
“Gov. John Engler, although his office made some overtures to granting some releases, he didn’t, and he denied the clemencies we submitted with the speed of light,” Jacobsen said. “Gov. Granholm granted 10 clemencies total to women who had been convicted of murder and given life sentences, plus she pushed the parole board to release four more women who had life sentences.
“As for Gov. Snyder, we have submitted clemency petitions for 12 women, and we are waiting to hear. We have been submitting to him every two years. You have to have all new petitions (every two years) for each woman.” She said they have succeeded in freeing nine women from life sentences over the last 25 years.
According to Anna Heaton, spokesperson for Snyder, “Gov. Snyder considers pardons on a rolling basis (as they are received) but we don’t comment on particular cases.”
All actions by the governor must be finalized and approved by the 10-member Parole Board, which is appointed by the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). According to Chris Gautz, public information office for MDOC, “There is a balance between MDOC staff and outside appointees (for board members). The MDOC cannot have any more than six members on the board at one time. Right now, the makeup is five MDOC and five non-MDOC members.”
The current parole system was created in 1885 as an advisory agency to the governor. The State Board of Prison Inspectors took over the duties in 1891, and then from 1893 to 1921, the state resumed control. Since 1937, when the Corrections Law revised the parole system, it became a civil service job that was a non-political board.
“Although the parole board has undergone dramatic changes since its initial inception, the mechanics of the parole process have remained constant for decades,” noted the Michigan Department of Corrections. “The Parole Board’s purpose and primary priority is to assess parole eligible prisoners to determine whether or not they will become a menace to society or pose a risk to the public safety.”
As to the composition of who is on the board, “There isn’t a preference for specific backgrounds (law, enforcement, prosecutors, etc.),” Gautz said, “but the goal is to have a diverse board, including diverse backgrounds. The appointments are absolutely not political favors.”
Jacobsen, not surprisingly, disagrees. “Parole boards are obsolete and they should be done away with,” she asserted. “They’re corrections officers, former police and sheriff officers, for the most part, who have a vested interest in not letting people out, and they function in a very punitive way. Their hearings are very punitive, especially to women who have a history of trauma or abuse, which is at least 80 percent of incarcerated women.”
A bigger issue, Jacobsen rightly points out, is the disparity in the number of women the parole board sees versus the number of men. “There are 48,000 men in Michigan prisons, and 2,300 women, so they see everyone as a violent criminal, and they’re not,” she said. “Very, very few should be removed from society.”
Gautz said the board’s work load is generally misunderstood by the public, and the positions are not ceremonial. Each board member serves a term of four years.
“Parole board members and parole board staff work tirelessly to prepare cases prior to (an) offender’s interview,” he stated. “Not only do members interview approximately 1,500 prisoners a month, but they do a host of other duties, such as adding and removing special parole conditions when requested by a field agent, meeting with victims, addressing parole violators that have been returned to prison for revocation processing, and reviewing lifer cases on an ongoing basis.”
Tonya Kraus-Phelan, auxiliary dean and tenured professor at Cooley Law School, said that parole boards have a set of criteria to determine who is available for parole, from the crime to what the inmate’s conduct has been like in prison, do they have a stable environment to be released into, as well as looking at letters of support – and opposition. “Letters written in opposition to release can play a role,” notably from the victim’s family,” she said.
Law students often do not learn the inner workings, or even the function, of parole boards, nor about battered woman syndrome.
Paul Walton, chief deputy at the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, said in Kantzler’s case, the prosecutors who worked on her case in 1988 and 1993 have all left the office. But county prosecutors offices do not work on parole cases, other than “we can be an advocate (for the victim) if we don’t think they’re parolable. We (along with the state) are obligated under the Crime Victims Rights Act to notify members of the victim’s family and ask if they want us to object to parole.”
Walton explained that the state’s attorney governor is the litigant before the parole board and is the one to call witnesses.
Kraus-Phelan also pointed out that over the years there have been judges, like former Judge Norman Lippitt, Kantzler’s original judge in her 1988 trial, “who were under the impression that if they gave a life sentence, the defendant would be freed after a certain point, and that didn’t turn out to be true. In a majority of cases, there has been a tough on crime attitude that has spilled out onto parole boards. Parole boards will only look at how a crime was committed in the context of if the person could be a risk to society. Will this person be violent? Has this person expressed remorse for their actions?”
A problem during parole for many women who have been abused, Kraus-Phelan pointed out, is that they don’t express remorse for their actions, “because they were truly the victim in the relationship.”
Walton concurred. “The parole board is often left with a prisoner who is not willing to admit their guilt.”
That may have been a problem during parole hearings for Karen Kantzler, who has come before the Michigan Parole Board in 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2015, and been denied each time. In 2015, Lippitt and Jacobsen attended and spoke on her behalf, and Howard and Thompson wrote letters on her behalf.
After 30 years in prison, thousands of hours of therapy and dozens of self-improvement classes, Karen Kantzler said, “Looking back, I was abused verbally and physically the whole time...I’m at fault for putting myself in that situation, for having such low self-esteem, such inadequate life skills, that I allowed the manipulation and isolation, and the physical and mental abuse. I allowed that. I put myself in the victim stance, which I know not to do now. I know how to not be a victim now.
“Maybe I was a victim then, but I’m not a victim now.”
“You had two judges that may have been coming forward, but it’s an administrative body – and one that’s not elected,” Walton noted. “It’s a mystery to us, too, the things they find objectionable.”
“What you really have is a woman who is behind bars who is taking a bed from somebody who perhaps should be there, and the state is having the privilege of paying for her keep,” Judge Barry Howard argued. “That’s not justice. That’s retribution, and that’s drawing a line in the sand to take and to fulfill our mission ‘to make society safe.’ Well, society would be safe if she was there or not there.”
Walton noted that the Oakland County Prosecutor’s office filed no opposition to parole for Kantzler in 2015.
Kantzler said she was visited by parole board on March 3, 2017, “which is encouraging because they said they would not see me before November 2019.” Kantzler said she was asked if she still needed self-improvement. “I answered I think everyone needs improvement everyday.”
On August 3, 2017, Walton reported that after a call to MDOC, they stated that, “We currently have not denied her parole, but are waiting for further paperwork.”
Walton said the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office has disqualified themselves in Seaman’s case, as Prosecutor Jessica Cooper was a judge at the time Seaman was tried. The Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office is currently in charge of the case.
“I’m not a greedy person. I know I took a life. I am just asking for some relief,” Seaman said. “Commutation does not absolve you of the crime. It acknowledges that the justice system has failed, and this is the mechanism to right it.
“I’m asking for a commutation because if I had been resentenced like Judge McDonald had ordered, I would have received 10 years or less, according to the sentencing guidelines, because I was a first time offender with no priors and no assaultive behavior, and that would have made me parolable. It’s commensurate with what the judge recommended.”
All each woman can do is wait. Perhaps Kantzler will receive parole. Otherwise, the Women’s Justice and Clemency Project pushes on, seeking clemency or commutation for the women during the remainder of Snyder’s term.
Or during the term of the next governor.