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East Lyme — Sixty-six-year-old convicted killer Bonnie Jean Foreshaw, whose case has become a cause célèbre in legal circles, will be released from prison next month after being granted clemency Wednesday by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Board Chairwoman Erika Tindill and members Nicholas Sabetta and Robert Smith voted unanimously in favor of clemency, which was described by Tindill as a type of “legal forgiveness,” following a five-hour hearing during which Foreshaw, a practicing Rastafarian with hair that hangs below her waist, acknowledged her guilt but said she never intended to kill anyone. She was convicted in the 1986 murder of a pregnant woman and sentenced to 45 years in prison.
She will be released Nov. 15 from the Janet S. York Correctional Institution, where she has completed just about every rehabilitation program offered and has served as a mentor to other prisoners.
“The remorse I feel cannot be conveyed in words,” she said. “It’s something I will live with no matter how much time passes.”
A legal team that was underwritten in part by a North Stonington couple, Thomas and Marguerite Moore, had championed her early release, in part because they said she had not been given a fair trial and should have been convicted of manslaughter and given a shorter prison sentence. Her story has been featured in films and more recently in news articles.
Superior Court Judge Jon Blue, who as a public defender in 1989 and who wrote a memorandum stating that Foreshaw had not received a fair trial, attended the hearing, as did author Wally Lamb, who included Foreshaw’s writing in his prison-based book, “Couldn’t Keep It to Myself.”
Members of the media packed the hearing, along with former inmates who came to support Foreshaw.
Sentencing laws in place at the time the crime occurred dictated that she would have completed her sentence after serving 31 years. She would have been released in 2017 had her legal team not pushed for early release via clemency.
Foreshaw said she would be moving in with a granddaughter, who owns a four-bedroom home in Manchester, after her release. Though her health is poor, she said, she plans to help raise her great-grandchildren and to volunteer to help young people and the homeless.
“The night that this happened, I was in fear of my life,” Foreshaw told the pardons board. She had been battered to the point of requiring hospitalization by three husbands and had acquired a pistol weeks before the shooting.
Foreshaw had stopped at the Progressive League, a Jamaican Social Club in Hartford, on March 27, 1986, where she being harassed by a man named Hector Freeman, according to trial testimony. Freeman, upset that Foreshaw had refused to let him buy her a drink, followed her out of the club, cursing. Joyce Amos, a friend of Freeman’s, tried to stop him. Foreshaw said Freeman lunged at her with his hands in his pocket. When Freeman saw Foreshaw with a gun, he pulled Amos, who was pregnant at the time, in front of him as a shield, and she was killed by the single shot that Foreshaw fired.
While Foreshaw contends she meant to shoot over Freeman’s head, to frighten him off, prosecutors said she had shot at him intentionally.
Amos’ daughter and other family members told the board that Foreshaw should serve her entire sentence.
Tammy Miller, who was just 8 when her mother was killed, said that Amos, too, had been a victim of domestic violence.
“I didn’t have any Wally Lambs, Judge Blues, Joette Katzes or Sen. Blumenthals to speak on behalf of my mother,” Miller said.
Joette Katz, now commissioner of the Department of Children and Families, was a public defender and Blue’s appeals unit supervisor when Foreshaw’s case was pending. Though Blue attended the hearing and acknowledged writing the memo about a month before he became a judge, he said he couldn’t take a position on the case. U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., in a recent interview with columnist Andy Thibault, said there were “powerful and compelling reasons” to grant Foreshaw clemency and suggested her gender and race — she is African American — may have been a factor in her poor legal representation.
At the hearing, Chief Public Defender Susan Storey said Foreshaw’s public defender, Dennis O’Toole, was newly appointed to represent defendants accused of major crimes, and was under “a lot of public and political pressure,” because a pregnant woman had been killed. At the time, “battered women’s syndrome” was not considered as a defense, Storey said.
Waterbury attorney Mary E. Werblin and Richard Emanuel, a highly respected criminal attorney, represented Foreshaw throughout the request for clemency. Werblin said she became involved in the case after speaking with a former director of the women’s center in New London, now called Safe Futures. Werblin said she started receiving financial assistance from the Moores after meeting them at a party.
Tindill, the chairwoman of the pardons board, noted that the Foreshaw case was full of inconsistencies. Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Leonard Boyle said court records do not support the claim that Judge Blue’s memorandum had been long buried, and the claim that Foreshaw did not intend to kill anyone has been “flatly rejected” at many levels of the court system.
“The finding of the jury was clearly that there was intent to kill,” Boyle said. The trial judge, Paul M. Vasington, “said that in his experience, this was a deliberate and cold-blooded murder,” Boyle said.
Prosecutors offered Foreshaw a plea deal involving a 25- to 30-year prison sentence, which Foreshaw said she rejected because it would have required her to plead guilty to drug crimes that she hadn’t committed. Foreshaw, a mother of three who was 12 years old when she had her first child, owned a home in Bloomfield and worked as a machinist and shop steward at a Hartford factory before she was arrested, according to testimony.
While in prison, Foreshaw completed every rehabilitation program available and became a mentor to other inmates. Liz Stenson, formerly of Middletown, said Foreshaw embraced her when she began a nine-year sentence for first-degree assault in 1989. Stenson traveled from Long Island for the hearing and became emotional as the details of Foreshaw’s ordeal were put on the record.
“Bonnie snatched ahold of me, literally, and took me under her wing,” Stenson said. “She taught me how to knit. She washed my hair after three arm surgeries.”
Ann Koletsky of Waterford, who has worked with inmates since 1978, most recently as a volunteer, attended the hearing and wrote a letter of “unconditional” support on behalf of Foreshaw.
“Throughout her entire incarceration, she has conducted herself with obedience, compliance ... respect and dignity,” Koletsky wrote. “Her gracious, warm and caring demeanor comes from a serene spirituality which emanates from her. I know that sounds a little much, but if you are in her company regularly this aura is undeniable.”
After about 30 minutes of deliberation Wednesday, the pardons board granted the clemency, ruling that Foreshaw has been rehabilitated and is no longer a threat to the community.