MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — An Ethiopian woman who killed her abusive husband is seeking to change Minnesota’s pardon system but may have an uphill battle ahead of her.
Amreya Shefa’s case drew the attention of local media in 2019 when she sought a pardon for her 2014 manslaughter conviction. Shefa killed husband Habibi Tesema late in 2013, a year after he brought her and their two children into the U.S. from Ethiopia.
In the year following her arrival, Tesema imprisoned Shefa and raped her regularly in the family’s home in the Minneapolis suburb of Richfield. The stabbing death of Tesema was ruled to be a case of excessive force in self-defense.
Shefa completed a five-year prison term in 2019, but has been in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Kandiyohi County Jail in Willmar, Minnesota ever since. ICE plans to deport Shefa to Ethiopia, where she has said she fears persecution for her religion. Shefa is Muslim.
Shefa sought a pardon in June 2019, appearing via phone from jail before the Minnesota Board of Pardons. The board postponed a decision, but Chief Justice Lorie Gildea of the Minnesota Supreme Court, a board member, said she would not support a pardon for Shefa.
Gildea’s effective veto of a pardon led Shefa to file a complaint Thursday in Hennepin County District Court, seeking an injunction that would place the pardon process entirely in Governor Tim Walz’ hands.
Minnesota’s pardon process has been a point of growing debate in the last few years. Hennepin County Judge Kevin Burke wrote to Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan in 2018 to address what he saw as a “compassion problem” in the pardon process that leaves many pardon applicants stymied by administrators before ever getting to address the board.
Walz himself has said he’s concerned with the pardon process, which Burke noted pardoned only 13 people in 2017. 2019 saw slightly more pardons at 14. Most of those were for nonviolent offenses and none addressed convictions from later than 2004.
Pardons are rare in many states, and while Minnesota is not the most conservative with its pardons, it pales in comparison to states like Alabama where hundreds of pardons are granted each year.
Walz and Burke expressed concern with the bureaucracy that prevents many applicants from ever reaching the pardon board, but Shefa’s complaint takes a different angle, challenging the power of the board itself.
The board was established in the state constitution, which states: “The governor in conjunction with the board of pardons has power to grant reprieves and pardons after conviction for an offense against the state except in cases of impeachment.”
While that provision doesn’t give any member veto power, the state Legislature enacted a statute early in Minnesota’s history that requires a unanimous vote to grant a pardon. That statute, Shefa’s complaint said, improperly gives power that should belong to the governor to the other two members.
David Schultz, a law and political science professor at Hamline University and the University of Minnesota, said he is skeptical of Shefa’s argument.
“The plain language does not support a claim that the pardoning power is solely vested in the governor. There is no express language in the Constitution that declares that. I cannot see any clear language or case law that cites or supports the complainant’s reading or construction,” Schultz said. “I think the district court blew it when they convicted her, and when the jury convicted her, but that’s another story entirely.”
Former state Attorney General Mike Hatch, a Democrat who served in the position from 1999 to 2007, was also skeptical of Shefa’s chances.
“She’s going to have a tough time on that,” he said. “It’s a sympathetic case, but she’s going to have a tough time.”
Violent crimes are rarely pardoned, Hatch added, noting that a large number of the pardons actually granted while he was on the board were for unwitting or unwilling accessories to drug cases.
Hatch said while the unanimous-decision requirement can be onerous, full executive pardoning power can too. One of his own earliest pardon board cases, he said, involved a similarly situated domestic-violence survivor.
Hatch supported a pardon but neither other board member did. That woman eventually got a pardon after both those members left their positions — a luxury Shefa likely won’t have.
But Hatch also cited an example from early in Minnesota’s history, when no unanimous vote was required, where a governor overruled the objections of a chief justice to deny a pardon to a man who narrowly escaped a racist mob in Duluth and was convicted on what now appear to have been groundless charges.
Jerry Blackwell of the Minneapolis firm Blackwell Burke is now seeking a posthumous pardon for that man.
Another former pardon board member, Hatch said, refused to grant any pardons after he and his fellow board members were the subjects of media outcry over a pardon given to a political ally.
“Which was tragic,” Hatch said, “because there are some people who should have a pardon.”
Shefa’s attorney, Andrew Crowder of Blackwell Burke, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The first hearing in the case is scheduled for May 22 before Hennepin County Judge Edward Wahl.