Gov. Tim Walz is still trying to win relief for a woman who challenged the Minnesota Board of Pardons' requirement that pardon applications be unanimously approved by the three-person panel.
The governor has asked federal immigration officials to halt deportation proceedings against Amreya Shefa, after she failed to receive a pardon for her 2014 manslaughter conviction for killing her husband in an act that she described as self-defense. Walz is asking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to "administratively close" removal proceedings against Shefa while officials consider her applications for nonimmigrant status for crime victims.
"Due to the recent ruling, I am unable to grant Ms. Shefa the clemency that she deserves, leaving her at risk of deportation," Walz wrote in a Sept. 24 letter to Timothy Perry, chief of staff for ICE in Washington, D.C. "Ms. Shefa's life will be in grave danger if she is deported to Ethiopia. She will be vulnerable to the practice of retaliatory killing at the hands of her late husband's family, who have made credible threats against her life."
Both Shefa and her attorneys have argued in court proceedings that she is fearful she will be killed out of revenge by her husband's family if deported to Ethiopia.
"There is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of fear revolving around her situation," said Andrew Crowder, an attorney for Shefa. "I think it is all going to come down to whether she is going to be taken back into custody pending her immigration proceedings. It is just awful for her, having started building a life of her own for the first time in a decade."
A spokesperson for ICE declined to comment.
Shefa applied for a pardon in 2019. The family of her husband, Habibi Tesema, testified against Shefa in an emotional hearing before the board that year. Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison voted in her favor but Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea disagreed. In explaining her vote, Gildea cited opposition from the Hennepin County Attorney's Office and repeated what Shefa's judge told her at her sentencing: "You had options available to you that night. Options you did not take."
Tesema brought Shefa and their two children to the United States from Ethiopia in 2012. She said he kept her prisoner in their Richfield home and repeatedly raped her, according to court records. She stabbed him to death in 2013. Hennepin County Judge Elizabeth Cutter later dismissed a murder charge filed by the Hennepin County Attorney's Office. Cutter concluded that Shefa had been raped and beaten by her husband that night but convicted her of manslaughter because Shefa used excessive force to defend herself.
She was ordered to be deported and detained by ICE after she completed her prison term in 2017 but has since been released on bond while immigration proceedings continue.
Shefa sued the state over its requirement that pardons be granted unanimously, and Walz supported her lawsuit. A Ramsey County judge ruled that the pardon board statute was unconstitutional but the state Supreme Court — with Gildea recused from the case — overturned that decision last month.
Unless the Minnesota Legislature changes the requirement that all three members of the state's pardon board agree to approve pardons, Shefa's remaining hopes for staying in the U.S. lie with immigration authorities.
Last year, the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the immigration court to hold a hearing to determine whether Shefa's manslaughter conviction met the "particularly serious crime" requirement for deportation under federal law. But Crowder said the status of any immigration court proceedings and of her applications regarding immigration status remain unknown.
A legislative change is unlikely anytime soon, with no special session scheduled before the Board of Pardons is expected to meet again next month.
The Supreme Court rendered last month's decision in expedited fashion because the lawsuit had prevented the Board of Pardons from meeting so far this year. The board must meet twice yearly under state law and is expected to hold meetings in November and December. The state's high court has yet to issue a written legal opinion explaining its ruling.
Walz has been an outspoken supporter of Shefa's case and unsuccessfully sought in court the ability to grant her pardon request based on the 2-1 vote in her favor. But if the Legislature does not meet again until its regular session in late January — and assuming a historic change to the pardon statute could pass the divided Legislature — it may not be until June 2022 when the Board of Pardons would next consider a new application from Shefa.
"Gov. Walz is very correct in that the pardon system is broken and dysfunctional, and he is not the first member of the pardon board to be of that view," said former Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Anderson, who added that he was surprised the rest of the Supreme Court's justices also did not recuse from the case given Gildea's involvement. "He is frustrated that the system of forgiveness in our society can be thwarted by one member of the pardon board for reasons completely separate from the merits of the petitioner."
Mark Osler, a University of St. Thomas law professor who runs a clemency clinic, said he expects to advocate for changing the law as quickly as possible given the stakes involved in Shefa's case.
"Criminal law is about tragedy but it's almost always about past tragedies. And in this case what we're looking toward is a future tragedy that this woman who had done her prison time would be murdered if she is deported," said Osler. "I understand the chief justice's concern about clemency cases where a loss of life occurred but in this particular case we're talking about the realistic risk of a predictable loss of life in the future that can be avoided."