Photo by Danny Wicentowski
In lieu of her attendance, a picture of Patty Prewitt was projected on the .ZACK stage Monday night.
On a stage prepared for the production of a prison drama, Jane Watkins stood behind a podium and recited a list of things that her mother, a convicted murderer, had missed in the last 30 years.
"We wanted her with us when we graduated, fell in love, got our hearts broken, got married, had children, got divorced, had a death in the family, received a cancer diagnosis, bought a house, got remarried, became a grandparent, celebrated anything and everything."
"She's missed enough," Watkins said, speaking before capacity crowd of around 75 at the .ZACK Theatre Monday night. They gathered to make a final appeal to Governor Jay Nixon to grant clemency to Patty Prewitt, the longest-serving inmate at Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia. The event, dubbed "The Rally for Patty," included a performance of a play based on Prewitt's life story.
In 1986, Prewitt, then a 36-year-old mother of five, was sentenced to life in prison. She was accused of shooting her husband twice in the head as he slept in the family's farmhouse in the western Missouri town of Holden. Her conviction for capital murder came without the possibility of parole for 50 years. Absent intervention by the governor, she won't be eligible to make her case for freedom to the parole board until 2036 — when she is 86 years old.
Her family and supporters contend that Prewitt's conviction would not have been possible if police had preserved evidence that pointed to an outside perpetrator. After her arrest in 1984, Prewitt rejected a plea deal which could have allowed her to make parole in five to seven years. Instead, she countered that her husband, Bill, had actually been murdered by an unknown assailant.
Prewitt's story has gained traction over the years. In 2010, 63 lawmakers signed a petition asking Nixon to commute her sentence.
That same year, a group of Georgetown University law students helped Prewitt file a petition for clemency with the governor's office.
But Prewitt's case is clouded by uncollected evidence and critical ambiguities, and her later legal appeals failed to convince appellate judges that she deserved a new trial.
The murder and its aftermath were the subject of
a 2004 Riverfront Times cover story
, in which then-RFT
staffer Shelly Smithson unspooled the case from beginning to bitter end. As the story describes, investigators didn't believe Prewitt's story about an unknown assailant, and prosecutors would ultimately cite Prewitt's admitted infidelities — as well as alleged statements she made to her paramours about killing her husband — as evidence of her guilt.
From Smithson's cover story:
Patty Prewitt, his wife of fifteen years — a beautiful 34-year-old who always cracked jokes, volunteered in the PTA and served as president of the Holden Chamber of Commerce — claimed an intruder killed her husband and attacked her at knifepoint.
Prosecutors said it was impossible to believe that a stranger found Bill's rifle in the bedroom closet and, in total darkness, loaded it with bullets that were stored in the chest of drawers — and then shot Bill at close range while Patty slept next to him.
The state's attorney argued that Patty shot her husband then threw the rifle into a pond on the family's 40-acre farm. The rifle and her boot prints were found when the pond was drained. Her motive, said prosecutors, was lust and greed. Three ex-lovers testified that she had wanted Bill dead for years. Two of the men said she had offered them thousands of dollars to murder her 35-year-old husband.
But the investigators failed to preserve critical evidence, such as hair fibers and possible fingerprints, and her supporters have raised questions about an unknown man in a white car who was observed near the Prewitt house on the night of the murder.
Prewitt has no legal recourse, meaning her last hope lies with Nixon, a governor who has issued 61 pardons since December 2014. However, none of those pardons have been applied to offenders still serving prison sentences
. In fact, Nixon has commuted the active sentence of just one prisoner
, a non-violent convicted pot dealer who was serving a no-parole life sentence.
During Monday's event, Jane Aiken, a Georgetown professor who led the legal clinic that assisted Prewitt with her clemency petition, argued that Prewitt has been a model prisoner for decades, and that there's no sense in keeping this woman locked up until 2036.
"We need this governor to act. He has the constitutional requirement to think about the criminal justice system and fix it when it's wrong," Aiken told the crowd. "We're not even asking him to say she was innocent. We're just saying let her go home."
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com