A small black plastic box is tightly clasped around Stephanie Clark's left ankle at the dining table as she plays Uno with her son. The court-ordered GPS monitor is tracking her every move, and so is the 9-year-old boy.

He's clinging to his mom after two years apart, only getting a few hours to play their favorite card game during visits at the Shakopee women's prison. But now, Brandon Carlisle-Maynard Jr. gets to play at home with his mom. He can watch the list of movies he's been waiting to see with her. He sits on her lap and crawls on her back like a human jungle gym. He doesn't let mom leave his sight, he says, "except for when she's going to the bathroom."

Granted a new murder trial — and a rare second chance at life together with her son — Clark walked out of prison this week hoping that this time a jury will believe that she was justified in what she did.

The 33-year-old, sentenced to 25 years for the 2020 killing of her abusive, live-in boyfriend, won an appeal after judges found that an erroneous jury instruction may have swayed the verdict. Her case has since gained the support of some of the nation's leading scholars on domestic violence, as well as local advocacy groups. Clark maintains that she acted in self-defense, fearing Don'Juan "Duke" Butler was going to kill her and her son, who was 5 at the time and in the other room.

Prosecutors say self-defense may well be true — had Clark not fired a second gun to kill a wounded Butler.

She said her son, who the family calls "Twoey," is what triggered her to act, and since then it's been a continued fight.

"What I had to do to keep my life and now what I have to do to try to keep it going," she said.

Imminent harm

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office charged Clark with second-degree intentional murder on March 6, 2020, the day after she shot Butler more than a dozen times in her Maple Grove home.

She testified at trial in October 2021 that Butler physically abused her almost daily. Family and Twoey's father corroborated this, testifying that Clark changed after dating Butler in 2019.

Butler, previously convicted in Wisconsin of substantial harm battery, a class one felony, quickly moved in with Clark. He didn't work, controlled her finances and punished her if she talked to other men, according to testimony and trial evidence.

Attempts to reach his family for this story were not successful. According to statements to police, Butler's mom said that Clark loved guns and bought them for Butler to use.

Clark testified that on the day of the shooting, Butler held a gun to her head. She said he paced around the house holding the gun and saying that once her son went to bed, he would break her ribs. He later put the gun down and continued pacing. Clark grabbed a revolver and followed him, firing eight times in the hallway. She said she just kept shooting and doesn't remember grabbing the second revolver and shooting Butler in the head in the bedroom.

Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Krista White rejected Clark's self-defense claim, saying in her closing argument at trial that she had "every opportunity to leave or to make different choices that night and instead she murdered him." She said nobody gets to hear from Butler about what happened.

The jury found Clark guilty. District Judge Peter Cahill sentenced her in February 2022, and that spring a Minneapolis law firm filed her appeal.

Her conviction was reversed in March 2023. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that Cahill gave an erroneous instruction to jurors when they asked in deliberations what "imminent" meant in Minnesota's self-defense law. Cahill, against the objection of Clark's attorney, Eric Doolittle, said it meant "immediate."

The appellate court disagreed. So did the Battered Women's Justice Project, Violence Free Minnesota and seven domestic violence experts from Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

The appellate court said "the jury could have found that Clark was in imminent danger of great bodily harm, even if such danger was not immediate," a term they said "obliterates the nature of the buildup of terror and fear."

Prosecutors appealed, petitioning the Minnesota Supreme Court to review not on the issue of the jury instruction, but on whether juries should evaluate self-defense claims differently when a defendant endured intimate partner violence.

In filings, Hennepin County Attorney Mary Moriarty urged the state's high court to "move the law in Minnesota forward" on the issue.

But the court declined to address it and dismissed the appeal earlier this month. The same self-defense standard will apply at Clark's second trial. A new jury will decide whether her use of force was reasonable.

Moriarty's office declined interview requests but said in a statement that "there is no question that domestic violence is a significant and insidious problem in our communities. Survivors of domestic violence need support and resources as they navigate potentially life threatening situations."

"Whether the Supreme Court provides such guidance or the Legislature changes the law, jury instructions in appropriate cases should reflect the latest research on domestic violence. That is currently not the case in Minnesota."

Doolittle said he wished the Supreme Court provided more guidance for cases like Clark's.

"When you live day in, day out with the kind of threats and violence and fear, that needs to be incorporated into fairly evaluating whether someone's actions were reasonable," he said in an interview.

At sentencing, Cahill told Clark that he didn't find her to be a credible witness and the only corroboration of domestic abuse "is a bruise." He sided with the state, saying it is more likely Clark was angry and snapped. And while Butler may have abused Clark, Cahill said "he was not the aggressor."

Prosecutors don't dispute Butler's escalating abuse. But the office said in the statement that evidence at trial supports continued prosecution for murder. They believe the jury instruction was harmless and jurors would have convicted her anyway. They asked for $1 million bail, but Clark was let out on $250,000 with conditions.

Doolittle said at her bail hearing that Clark is not going to risk letting her family, attorneys or supporters down.

"She understand this case is being followed by domestic advocacy groups ... She wants to counsel people who have been through domestic abuse ... Her only path to freedom is a trial."

At home, in limbo

Clark's homecoming aligned with Twoey's spring break, making them all the more inseparable.

He doesn't want to share his mom with anyone else, which is difficult with relatives stopping by to visit.

Clark's uncle delivered a bouquet of flowers and cake Wednesday afternoon as her brother, Rob, grilled chicken wings in the snow-covered backyard, her first homecooked meal after ordering Dominos the first night back home at her mom's in Maple Grove.

"Hopefully it's the beginning, the start of a new beginning," her mom, Kathy Clark, said. "Having her here is just unbelievable."

Kathy Clark said she came to expect the worst during her daughter's two years in prison. When they thought she would be released, something always got in the way. Six months after her murder conviction reversal, appellate attorneys pleaded for her release, but it was too late to see her dying father, who succumbed to cancer at 64.

Clark said her dad hoped to make her a steak dinner. Her oldest brother, Jason, will do the honors instead.

Jason's wife, 30, also died while Clark was in prison, leaving behind a 10-year-old son, Jeremiah, who plays, and fights, like a brother with Twoey.

The boys are vying for Clark's attention. She's had to explain to her son that Jeremiah doesn't get his mom back. But for now, Twoey has his.