Grnad Rapids Press

Should these women go free?

Sunday, January 19, 2003
By Theresa D. Mcclellan
The Grand Rapids Press

She is a grandmother now.

That is one of the reasons Delores Graham Kapuscinski wants to move closer to her 23-year-old daughter in Bay City.

But the only person able to change Kapuscinski's address is Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

It was 15 years ago this month that Kapuscinski was sentenced to life in prison for shooting her husband twice in the head in 1987 as he slept at their Rockford-area home.

After enduring 17 years of abuse, she said, "I was trapped and I just snapped."

Kapuscinski is one of 13 women in state prisons who deserve freedom, according to the Michigan Battered Women's Clemency Project, which has taken up their causes. While past requests have been rejected, Michigan's new governor appears at least to be listening to the group's case.

Kapuscinski, 52, who is in state prison in Plymouth, is the only West Michigan woman being represented by the Clemency Project. The others come from Detroit, Flint, the Battle Creek area and rural Lansing. Some have been locked up since the 1970s, convicted of fatally shooting, stabbing or burning the men they claim abused them.

"If I knew then what I know now, no way would I have stayed and taken that (abuse) all those years," Kapuscinski said recently. "People think you can just leave a situation, but it was a prison. It was hell."

It was that living hell, Kapuscinski says, that made her grab a .22-caliber rifle and fire two bullets into the head of Thomas Kapuscinski, the father of her two children. Although she was never beaten, sexual and psychological torment drove her to criminal insanity, she said.

That's what her defense attorney argued years ago. A Kent County jury did not buy it and convicted her of first-degree murder. She was sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

Relatives of the slain man are insulted that she would try to win freedom using the "battered woman defense" -- brought to prominence by Francine Hughes of East Lansing, who killed her husband in 1977. Hughes was acquitted after arguing temporary insanity due to psychological and physical abuse.

The local victim's mother doesn't buy the psychological abuse claim.

"She murdered my son and she has no right to get out. She lies and she killed a decent man," said the victim's mother, 74-year-old Dolores Kapuscinski, who lives in Rochester.

The Michigan Parole Board holds a similar view. Kapuscinski was convicted by a jury of her peers -- a conviction upheld on appeal.

"The board unanimously did not take interest in this case," said Michigan Parole Board Chairman John Rubitschun.

The 10-member panel receives about 450 requests a year for clemency. If a case generates interest from six of its members, it is reviewed.

None of the 13 women, including Kapuscinski, made the cut.

"Speaking for myself, with first-degree murder, I wasn't interested," Rubitschun said.

Neither was former Gov. John Engler, who nixed her two earlier bids for clemency.

Kapuscinski -- along with attorneys and social workers with the Clemency Project -- are hoping for a more sympathetic ear from Michigan's first woman governor.

"I'm believing someone will listen," said Kapuscinski, who earned two college degrees while in prison. "I could do so much more outside these walls. I want to work with other battered women."

The former attorney general appears to be listening.

"She (Granholm) is curious of the circumstances of the Clemency Project," said spokeswoman Mary Dettloff. "I'm not saying she will take action, but she wants more information."

Volunteer effort

Michigan's Clemency Project was launched in 1991 and is based near Ann Arbor, supported by volunteer lawyers, law students and the American Civil Liberties Union. They have reviewed 25 cases and won freedom for two women.

Nationally, 124 women have been granted clemency since 1978 -- primarily in Ohio, Maryland and Kentucky.

Local leaders estimate at least 100 women are in Michigan prisons for killing an abusive spouse in self defense, or during extreme duress that placed them in fear for their life.

Similar clemency projects exist in 39 states. It is estimated that on the national level, between 60 to 80 percent of the women serving life terms for murder acted in self defense or under duress, said Carol Jacobsen, an organizer with the Michigan Battered Women's Clemency Project.

The topic of clemency is getting renewed attention after outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan -- grappling with questions of police misconduct and capital punishment -- commuted the death sentences of 163 inmates. Most will now serve life without parole.

While Michigan does not have the death penalty, Clemency Project workers hope Ryan's action spurs closer scrutiny of a local criminal justice system that ignores factors driving some women to kill.

"Clemency is about mercy. Continuing incarceration is unjust," said Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women.

Education about how continued abuse can trigger violence is important, Osthoff said.

"Part of the challenge is to find out ways of helping those families cope with their losses and not think the only way of justice is keeping" women who kill locked up, she said.

In some respects, Michigan already has made progress, some Clemency Project backers say. They point to a 1992 state Appeals Court ruling allowing expert testimony on battered spouse syndrome to be used in court.

The 13 women seeking clemency were convicted prior to 1992.

Kapuscinski's case has not been forgotten by her defense attorney at the time, James Piazza.

"That's one of the few cases that still haunts me, to be honest," said Piazza, now serving as assistant prosecutor in Saginaw.

"Her husband put her through some stuff that nobody should go through," Piazza said. "A lot of it was psychological. I think she went through hell and back and I don't think the jury understood the long-term effects of abuse."

Kapuscinski was stunned by her conviction.

"I thought they would have understood," she said of the Kent County jury. "The prosecutor tried to make it like it was about money."

It was about money, police and prosecutors contend.

Kapuscinski was portrayed at trial as a controlling woman who handled the family checkbook and who secretly squirreled away money earmarked for bills. The killing occurred the day they were to be evicted for defaulting on their mortgage.

Kapuscinski also wanted her husband's $200,000 life insurance policy, prosecutors argued.

She was convicted, and sentenced Jan. 7, 1988, to life without parole.

"When I was convicted I felt like I left one prison to enter another one," she said. "But I have more freedom here than I ever did in that marriage.

"I just take it one day at a time and try to stay positive. I miss my children."

Her son, Christopher Graham, is 21, her daughter, Wendy Graham, is 23.

The children were raised by their maternal grandmother. Christopher, who lives in Grand Rapids, grew up believing his father was a monster.

The dead man's family believes that title belongs to Delores, who committed the murder when Chris was 5 and Wendy, 7.

"They tried to get her off at the trial," said Thomas Kapuscinski's mother, Dolores. "She wasn't abused, they proved it at the trial. I think it's ridiculous that these so-called clemency people would try to do that."

Settling in Rockford

Thomas Kapuscinski of Rochester and Delores Graham of Grand Rapids met while she attended Ferris State College. They married in 1969 and moved frequently before settling in Algoma Township, just north of Rockford. He took a job as a forklift mechanic.

She described their marriage as loveless, one in which her self-esteem was constantly attacked. He called her "stupid" for not taking care of the house, Kapuscinski recalled.

"He would yell at me and call the children horrible names," Kapuscinski said. "He punched a hole in the wall. He always let me know he was in control."

About 4:15 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in February 1987, she called police to the couple's ranch-style home to report an intruder broke into her home and killed her husband as he lay in bed.

Police found the murder weapon under a living-room couch and charged her with the slaying.

Kapuscinski later said she went to the basement where the guns were kept to kill herself, but instead, shot her husband.

Once in prison, Kapuscinski earned bachelor's degrees from Spring Arbor College in business administration and behavioral science.

She also earned an associate's degree as a legal assistant and obtained a para-legal certificate from Jackson Community College.

Kapuscinski said she now has self-confidence and a desire to help others. The image she sees in the mirror today is far different from 15 years ago, she said.

"I didn't want to fight or even know how to stand up for myself and that made me a target," Kapuscinski said of her early days behind bars. "I thought I was so dumb because that's what he always told me."

Seeing herself in the pages of the school books she read and in the faces of women serving time for similar crimes brought about a change, Kapuscinski said.

"I realized I am strong. I am smart. I have a strong faith," she said. "I believe they will make this right."

© 2003 Grand Rapids Press.