A woman who was represented by a USC Law student after spending 29 years in prison for sitting in a car while her husband robbed and killed a shop owner shared her story with a crowd of 165 students and parents at USC’s Trojan Parents Weekend.
The woman — Connie Keel — gave a heart-felt talk about her time before, during and after prison. She was joined by Adam Reich, the third-year law student who represented her, and Prof. Heidi Rummel, co-director of USC Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project clinical program.
“I still very clearly remember the robbery,” Keel said. “I was sitting in the middle front seat of the car and I felt paralyzed. I was petrified. For a moment, I thought about driving away and leaving them there. But I didn’t know how I was going to get to my husband’s parents house and get my children before he found me. I couldn’t figure out how to do that, and I thought he would kill me.
“So, I sat there and listened to them shoot those guns, and I knew they were killing the clerk. I was frozen. I just couldn’t believe this was happening.”
After the crime, Keel said her husband kept her a virtual prisoner in their home, even escorting her to the bathroom.
The next day, the couple visited his parents where her children were staying. It would be the last time Keel saw her 1-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter as a free woman. The next day Keel, her husband and his cousin were arrested. They stayed in jail for 22 months while waiting for trial.
“All along I never thought I would be convicted because I wasn’t even in the liquor store and I didn’t event want to be there,” Keel said. “I told my husband not to do it. But he just stuck the gun in my face and told me to f—shut my mouth and do as I was told.”
Unfortunately, Keel never shared this with the court. She did not put on a defense and was incorrectly told she could not testify against her husband. “I was misinformed and naïve. I was scared. I thought I would be found innocent and return to my kids. I thought my husband would tell the court that I didn’t do anything and didn’t want to be there.”
That never happened. The trio was tried together and all three found guilty of first-degree murder. Keel was sentenced to 25 years to life.
“The first seven years, I was angry,” Keel said. “I didn’t really take advantage of any of the programs in prison. But then I realized I had to make something of my life for my kids.”
She began attending several counseling and self-help groups offered in the prison. She sought intense therapy for the emotional, physical and sexual abuse she endured as a child.
“I was only able to see my children once a year or every other year,” she said. “But I lived for them. That is what kept me going.”
Before the California Board of Parole Hearings six times, Keel’s parole was finally recommended in October 2008 after Reich argued her case.
“Connie and I couldn’t be more different, but we were completely aligned when it came to her case,” Reich said. “Fighting for her was my mission. I knew I had to do everything in my power to help her.”
In an unusual move, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to review the Parole Board’s recommendation, affirming Keel’s release. She was release from prison on April 1, 2009.
This was one of the few times Schwarzenegger has not blocked a prisoner’s release on the Parole Board’s first recommendation. The governor’s office personally sent Reich an email of the decision, a rare gesture.
Reich not only represented Keel at her parole hearing, he waged a spirited campaign for Keel’s release. The New York native created a website, www.freeconnie.com, distributed “Free Connie” flyers at a local event, and distributed “Free Connie” T-shirts featuring her photo and web address. He also worked with the women’s advocacy group, Action Committee for Women in Prison.
Reich is one of 20 students in USC Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project who, under the direction of Professors Rummel and Michael Brennan, represent women convicted of first- and second-degree murder at parole hearings and in the state courts. Many of the women have been battered and abused.
Since 1994, more than 350 USC Law students have worked with hundreds of clients on matters such as consultation and representation at parole hearings, and state and federal lawsuits challenging denials of constitutional rights. More than 25 women in California have been freed from prison, as a result of to the work of students and their professors.