The Minnesota Board of Pardons on Monday took a step toward cutting short the prison time of a woman who has served more than a dozen years for drowning her newborn child after giving birth at 19.
Samantha Heiges, 35, expressed remorse for killing her daughter - whom she named Sydney – saying she did so only because the baby's father threatened to kill them both if she did not follow through with the act and that she had been the victim of repeated abuse beforehand.
Sentenced in 2008 to nearly 25 years in prison, Heiges sought to serve the rest of her sentence on supervised release so she could care for her 13-year-old daughter. All three members of the Board of Pardons were poised to approve a plan to send Heiges home early. They decided to formally vote on the matter when the board reconvenes next month and after the Department of Corrections can present a release plan for Heiges.
"Prepare yourself for going and living with your daughter and achieving what you hope to achieve," Gov. Tim Walz told Heiges.
Hannah Hughes, an attorney who took the case while a student at the University of Minnesota Law School's Clemency Clinic, which represents Heiges, told the board – which also includes Attorney General Keith Ellison and Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea – that Heiges' then-boyfriend was physically and emotionally abusive and cut her off from her familial and social support networks during the pregnancy. She later attempted suicide in the days after drowning the baby.
Heiges tearfully described how she, at the time, thought drowning the baby would be more humane than the alternative. She said her boyfriend once smashed her cat's head between a door and a wall and repeatedly punched her stomach in an unsuccessful attempt to cause an abortion.
Heiges, who has trained service dogs and worked as a conflict coach while in prison, said she would "never truly forgive myself for what happened" and that she would spend the rest of her life "making amends to Sydney." Heiges' mother spoke in favor of her early release and said her family vowed to support her and her teenage daughter.
"This is happening because we believe you're going to be successful, you're going to make this work and society is better served," Walz said.
Dakota County District Judge Karen Asphaug, who sentenced Heiges, has written that she does not object to commuting her sentence. The Dakota County Attorney's Office is not supporting commutation. Heiges' attorneys said that her former boyfriend initially faced aiding and abetting charges for the baby's death but that charges were dropped after Heiges refused to testify against the man.
Heiges' case was among more than two dozen clemency bids considered during a daylong hearing, the board's first of two meeting this year. A court challenge over the state's pardon process prompted an initial June hearing to be delayed five months.
Of the cases heard Monday, the board approved 16 petitions, denied seven and will return to consider three more, including Heiges' case, during a two-day hearing scheduled for Dec. 13. Two others rescinded their applications.
On Monday, the board also refused to shorten the life without parole sentence for the driver convicted in the 2006 drive-by shooting of former Minneapolis North High School star basketball player Brian Cole.
A jury convicted , 36, on all charges related to Cole's shooting. Caldwell was the driver but did not fire the shot that killed Cole.
The shooter, Kirk Harrison, was convicted of second-degree drive-by murder and received a shorter sentence after electing to be tried before a judge instead of a jury. The judge found that prosecutors failed to prove that Harrison intended to kill someone. Harrison is scheduled to be released from prison in 2029.
All three members of the board voted against Caldwell's petition, but Walz and Ellison signaled that they would like the Legislature to rework the state's sentencing laws to eliminate life sentences without the possibility for parole after a period of time.
The unusual timing of what is still labeled as the board's spring 2021 hearing came after a months-long legal conflict that included a Ramsey County judge declaring part of Minnesota's pardon statutes unconstitutional before the state Supreme Court ultimately upheld the law.
Under current state law, the board must vote unanimously to approve requests to pardon or commute sentences. Walz wants the board to be able to grant pardons under 2-1 votes if the governor is one of those voted in favor of applications.
Its return to work Monday meant that stories like Brianna Bruzer's and Chaka Mkali's could be told in hopes that the state could forgive their past convictions. Theirs were among the 26 pardon applications sought Monday by Minnesotans who had already served their time.
Bruzer, 35, described achieving sobriety and going on to work in marketing and real estate in the 16 years after her check forgery and drug possession convictions. She now also works with the Minnesota Adult Teen Challenge and teaches Bible studies. Her pardon carried extra significance on Monday as it arrived on her eldest son's 14th birthday. She wanted to clear her record so that she could participate in family hunting trips.
"This is all about, you can't be defined by that one moment," Walz said. "Yours is the success case."
Mkali, a Minneapolis artist and organizing director for a Minneapolis affordable housing advocacy group, received a pardon for a pair of convictions related to a 1992 burglary arrest.
He described his life experience as vital to being able to mentor young people in his community with authenticity. Mkali said he learned not to take freedom lightly and that one of the main lessons of his experience was the power of taking time to reflect.
"The most valuable thing you have to offer is time," Mkali said.
Mkali also has curated exhibitions on hip-hop and muralism at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts while mentoring young artists.
"You have tremendous community support and you've done a lot to make your community better," Gildea said.