Pardons Board allows release of woman who killed baby

AG Keith Ellison (left), Gov. Tim Walz and Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.
Attorney General Keith Ellison (left), Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota Chief Justice Lorie Gildea meet as the Board of Pardons on June 25, 2019.
Brian Bakst | MPR News 2019

Updated 4 p.m.

A woman convicted of killing her newborn left prison almost four years early under a supervised release plan approved Monday by Minnesota’s pardons board.

Samantha Heiges, 35, was let out of the prison in Shakopee Monday after serving 12 years. She will remain under conditions through 2033 and is now under the jurisdiction of Anoka County Community Corrections officials, according to state prison records.

Her case was among dozens considered for offenses ranging from theft to drunken driving to assault and worse. Most of the crimes under consideration for clemency occurred decades ago and punishment had been fulfilled. Those seeking a pardon say the past convictions can be barriers to employment, volunteer activities, housing and more; others say they can’t legally acquire firearms given their records.

Consideration of a long roster of cases was due to stretch over two days, with often-tearful testimony from applicants, their advocates and even victims of crimes offering their perspective. Board members typically consider the severity of the crime, the level of accountability, evidence of remorse and the sentiment of victims.

Gov. Tim Walz, who along with Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Attorney General Keith Ellison make up the board, opened the hearing by describing how it forces people to confront the worst mistakes of their life and explain how they’ve atoned.

"What you will witness is one of the most human events that you can imagine,” Walz said. “You will see emotions ranging from pain to joy, and I hope what you will see is the potential for redemption and restoration.”

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Not all of the pardon applicants were successful.

In the case of Heiges, it was continuation of a discussion that began at a November hearing where she tearfully testified about that fateful day and what led to it.

Heiges was convicted in 2008 in the drowning death of her newborn in 2005. She told the board in November that she is deeply remorseful and had been in an abusive relationship at the time. She has testified that she feared for her own life or a worse outcome for the baby if she didn’t act.

Her supporters say her release from custody will enable her to renew her bond with another daughter who is now a teenager.

The pardons board vote was unanimous as required. Walz explained the action to Heiges, who listened remotely from the women’s prison.

“This would not shorten your overall sentence. If you abide your terms of your supervised release, you’ll be allowed to live outside the prison and foster these relationships and find that redemption that we talk about,” Walz said. “Your sentence would be completed as it stands now in November of 2033 when it is set to terminate. Do you understand?”

“Yes I do,” she replied.

Lawyers assisting Heiges note that the sentence she received was stiffer than she faced had she pleaded guilty to a crime she insists was committed under duress. A plea deal that Heiges rejected would have landed her a four-year sentence, they said.

According to written materials supplied to the pardons board, the prosecutor in the case opposed commutation, but the judge who presided over trial and sentenced Heiges didn’t object to the request.

Heiges intends to live with her grandmother in the metropolitan area. Heiges’ mother has legal custody of the woman’s other daughter.

JaneAnne Murray, a University of Minnesota Law School professor who assisted in the commutation request, said considerable steps are being taken to ensure a smooth reentry into society. That includes family therapy involving Heiges, her daughter and other relatives.

“There will not be unsupervised visits. The daughter is not going to be with Ms. Heiges at the house unaccompanied at any point,” Murray said. “And the plan is to reintegrate them carefully.”