Haley Barbour Pardons the Scott Sisters' Life Sentence

On Christmas Eve 17 years ago, two sisters stole a pittance—and got a life sentence. Constantino Diaz-Duran on what happened that night, and the unlikely pardon that just saved them.

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Seventeen Christmas Eves ago, the lives of two sisters were forever changed by a pocketful of money that, today, would barely buy you a movie ticket. For a robbery of as little as $11, Jamie and Gladys Scott were convicted in October 1994 and handed a sentence they never imagined: life in prison.

But this week, as 2010 wound to a close and the Mississippi siblings faced yet another year behind bars, their freedom was unexpectedly granted. As his final term as governor comes to an end, Haley Barbour announced the suspension of their sentences.

Their saga paints a picture of a criminal-justice system that is by turns draconian and forgiving. It all began the night of December 24, 1993. According to court records posted on a blog campaigning for their release, the sisters met with two men—their alleged victims—at a roadside convenience store at approximately 10:30 p.m. Gladys and Jamie, who the victims said arrived in "a blue Oldsmobile," approached the men, saying they wanted to go for a ride. The men could see that there were other passengers in the women's car, but they couldn't tell how many. Still, they agreed to go for a drive with them. Eventually, they noticed that the Oldsmobile was now following them.

The foursome continued to drive, stopping briefly at a nightclub for the ladies to use the restroom. Upon returning to the car, Gladys asked if she could drive. She took the wheel, and drove until Jamie began complaining of carsickness. Worried that she would get sick in his car, the owner asked Gladys to pull over. It was then that the men say three male teenagers came out of the Oldsmobile that was still following them, brandishing a shotgun. The boys hit both men in the head with the gun and took their wallets. The indictment states that they took "cash money in the form of currency in excess of ten dollars." The exact amount is disputed—one of the men claimed to have over $200 in his wallet, but the figure most often cited in news reports is $11. The sisters and their presumed friends then left the scene in the Oldsmobile, heading to Jamie's apartment, where "all five of the assailants split the money they had stolen."

The five were arrested the night of the robbery. "This," says Jamie in a letter posted on their blog in August 2009, "was the beginning of a real-life nightmare for everyone in our family: our parents, our children, and especially us." Two of the boys agreed to testify against the sisters in exchange for lesser sentences. Jamie and Gladys, both of whom were first-time offenders, were sentenced to life. If Governor Barbour hadn't commuted their sentences, they would not have been eligible for parole until 2014.

The Scott sisters vehemently deny their participation in the crime. "We contend our innocence," reads Jamie's letter. "Our parents believe in our innocence and the Patrick men [their alleged cohorts] know we are innocent." They say they were wrongfully convicted, at least partly, because they lacked proper representation. According to one report, their lawyer was disbarred two years after their case was lost for "lack of diligence" in other cases. In her letter, Jamie claims that their alleged accomplices' testimonies were not valid. "Through coercions, threats and promises," she writes, "they chose to turn states [sic] evidence against Gladys and me. These men were promised a lenient sentence, in return for their testimonies."

“This is not a movie, it is a real-life situation, this happened to real people. An untruth has taken away our lives.”

Jamie and Gladys exhausted their legal options before their case caught the attention of legal analyst Nancy Lockhart, who took the helm of the campaign to release them. Lockhart was able to put the Scott's case on the spotlight in recent years, highlighting Jamie's ailing health. She has developed end-stage renal failure, and is in urgent need of a kidney transplant. A condition of Gladys' release is that she will donate the organ to her sister.

Spending 16 years behind bars, wrote Jamie in her letter for the blog, has affected more than her health. "This is not a movie, it is a real-life situation, this happened to real people. An untruth has taken away our lives. A life that included our parents and children (now grandchildren)." Gladys, who, according to Jamie's letter, was 19 and pregnant at the time of the arrest, left a 7-year-old daughter in her mother's care. Jamie herself, who was 22, had three children, aged 7, 3, and 1. All of the children have been raised by their grandmother—Jamie and Gladys' father passed away while the sisters were in prison.

Barbour's decision has been applauded by prominent leaders of the African-American community. Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the national NAACP, called this "a shining example" of how a governor should use the clemency power. The announcement came on the heels of a controversy sparked by comments Barbour made about the Citizens Council, an organization with ties to white supremacists during the civil-rights era.

Whether Jamie and Gladys took part in the robbery, or were completely innocent as they claim, it is clear that they have paid whatever dues they may have owed to society. According to Barbour's statement, "Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation." And while he may have made his decision at least in part to save face, he might have also helped save Jamie's life.

Constantino Diaz-Duran has written for the New York Post, the Dallas Morning News, and the Orange County Register. He is a weekly contributor at the Encyclopaedia Britannica Blog, and the editor of Yorkvillian.com, where he writes about life in Yorkville—an underpriced and underrated corner of Manhattan's Upper East Side. He an avid Yankees fan, and the faithful servant of a dog named Jack. You'll find him on Twitter as @ cddNY.