WILLMAR – Amreya Shefa hasn’t known freedom since setting foot in the United States.
After her husband brought her from Ethiopia in 2012, Shefa says he kept her a prisoner in their home and threatened to take their children away if she reported his continuing abuse. One December night in 2013, she stabbed him to death.
A judge found that Shefa had been raped and beaten by her husband that night but convicted her of manslaughter in 2014.
She has completed her prison term, but at 41 remains jailed while the Department of Homeland Security works to deport her, a fate she believes would be worse than prison. She’s certain if she steps foot back on her home soil, she would be murdered as revenge by the family of the man she killed.
Her appeals all but exhausted, Shefa’s last hope would be for the state’s pardons board to clear her name — something that has not happened since 1984.
The board is made up of three people — Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea. Two of them would have to agree to hold a hearing for her. A pardon requires a unanimous vote.
Linus Chan, Shefa’s attorney, has made a bid for his client to get a hearing before the board. Chan acknowledges the request is extraordinary, but so are the circumstances of this case.
“A way to remedy this is to force a look at whether this conviction was just,” said Chan, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law. “This is our client’s life. It’s her children, her family. A pardon is understanding and correcting what happened.”
Shefa remains in federal custody at the Kandiyohi County jail. In a recent interview, she was calm when she recounted the abuse she endured, the night she killed her husband and the time she served in prison. She began to cry only when contemplating another chance at freedom and seeing her children again.
“I’m asking, please God, please give me one more chance,” she said. “Please God, put me with my kids. Please.”
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, whose office charged Shefa with murder, said the county would likely oppose any pardon for a serious crime.
The family of Shefa’s husband would also fight a pardon. They believe he never harmed her and are now raising her children. They call her a pathological liar and say they live in fear of her.
“She is very dangerous,” said Ahmed Elphato, the brother of Habibi Tesema, the man Shefa killed. “She is evil.”
‘Looking for a wife’
Working as a merchant in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Shefa thought she would never again find love. She had already been married, had a child and divorced. In 2006, a mutual friend introduced her to Tesema, who had been living for years in Richfield and went to Africa looking for a wife. They were married within the month. He returned to Minnesota, pledging to eventually bring her to the United States. She bore two children by him while in Africa, and the family reunited, moving into the basement of a Richfield house in August 2012.
His once gentle demeanor changed, Shefa said in a sworn affidavit. That night, Shefa said, he wanted to have sex but she said no because she was tired from the traveling.
“He forced me to have sex anyway,” she wrote.
The rapes and beatings would continue almost daily, she wrote. He would beat her if he didn’t like the way she cooked dinner or was unhappy with how she cleaned the house. During one rape, she wrote, “I was in so much pain that I passed out.”
Shefa says that Tesema told her never to leave the home. Once she told him she would call the police, but he laughed. If she called police, he said they would take their children away and deport her.
“I knew this was true,” she wrote.
On Dec. 1, 2013, she wrote, Tesema was drunk and high on khat, an African plant stimulant. When he began to rape her, she grabbed a knife and stabbed him. He swiped the knife from her, cutting her hand. She grabbed another knife and stabbed him 30 times, according to court documents. Tesema stumbled to a bathroom and locked the door. Shefa called 911, and police found his naked body in the bathtub.
“I did not mean to kill him,” Shefa would later say in her affidavit. “I just needed him to stop raping me.”
Over the course of a 2 ½-hour interrogation, she told a detective of the abuse.
“I am not even afraid of Allah as I am afraid of [Tesema],” she said. “I am afraid of him all the time.”
The County Attorney’s Office charged Shefa with second-degree murder, attributed to jealousy after Tesema often threatened to have sex with another woman if she refused him. Freeman’s office offered Shefa a plea deal of 21 years in prison. She refused, opting for a bench trial in front of Hennepin County Judge Elizabeth Cutter.
At trial, Assistant County Attorney Cheri Townsend portrayed Shefa as a gold-digging killer who murdered her loving husband. Townsend’s star witnesses were Tesema’s family members, who testified that he was a gentle, giving man and that they never saw him abuse Shefa. Townsend said Shefa’s statements to the police showed that she killed her husband because she didn’t want a threesome.
“He was a chance for her to get out of Ethiopia and come to the United States, so she used it as a chance to get here.”
Weeks later, Cutter issued a written decision. She found statements by Tesema’s family not credible. Instead, the evidence corroborated Shefa’s account of that night and of the monthslong abuse, Cutter ruled, based on what was found at the scene, such as sex paraphernalia and pornography in the room where she stabbed Tesema. Neither she nor Tesema were clothed. After police arrived, Shefa “consistently reported she was abused by the victim,” and a witness for the state said Tesema had previously “acknowledged verbal abuse” of Shefa.
Further, Cutter said, Shefa had no resources in the country, “no control over her most basic needs.” When Shefa was rebuffed after telling a family member about the abuse, “any attempts to seek help from Mr. Tesema’s family would have been futile.”
Cutter dismissed the murder charge but quickly turned to how Shefa defended herself that night. The number of wounds, coupled with Tesema’s intoxication, “indicates that the force used by defendant greatly exceeds the use of force required to defend herself.”
Cutter convicted her of manslaughter, then sentenced her to nearly five years in prison.
“You had alternatives to you that night,” the judge told her.
A last hope
In an interview, Shefa said the best years of her life in America were at the Shakopee women’s prison. There she made friends, learned English, took yoga and computer software classes and was part of a support group for incarcerated mothers.
Her parental rights were terminated in April 2015. The judge in the child protection case found that she showed no remorse for killing her husband and refused to address “the underlying issues” present in the case, “including her mental health and alleged domestic violence in the home.”
“Ms. Shefa is palpably unfit to raise her children,” the judge ruled. The children now live with Tesema’s brother, where they are thriving, according to court documents.
Since Shefa was released from prison in September, Homeland Security has kept her in jails while they seek to deport her.
Volunteer lawyers with the University of Minnesota and Legal Aid have been fighting to keep her in the country, but every attempt has failed.
One lawyer filed an application for a visa. To be eligible, Shefa needed a law enforcement official to verify that she was not only a crime victim, but also helped police in a criminal investigation.
Cutter, the judge who sent Shefa to prison, signed the application. The judge wrote that Shefa “participated in several interviews with law enforcement and consistently reported that she was abused by Mr. Tesema.”
Shefa’s lawyers filed an appeal against her deportation, arguing that if she’s sent back to Ethiopia, she will almost surely be killed in retaliation for killing her husband.
The immigration judge rejected Shefa’s argument and ordered her to be deported, which DHS can do at any time.
“She is very vulnerable right now,” said Chan, her lawyer.
Shefa hasn’t spoken to her children, now 8 and 7, in more than five years. She hasn’t seen so much as a picture of them. If she gets a pardon, she said one of the first things she’d do is try to see them again.
She’s thought for months about what she would say if she sat before the board.
“I ask them to forgive me,” she said. “I ask them for one more chance.”