Hostages to Justice
The courtroom door swung open. The trial was over. A jury of four men and six women had reached a verdict in the lawsuit by 10 female inmates who claimed Michigan prison officials did nothing to prevent rapes and assaults by male guards.
"All rise!" the bailiff said loudly.
On the other side of the courtroom, behind a row of lawyers, inmate Toni Bunton clutched her chest.
Her stomach churned. Would the jury believe her testimony that she was raped eight times and groped on a daily basis by the men who guarded her at Scott Correctional Facility? Would anyone care?
"Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict?" Ann Arbor Judge Timothy Connors asked, folding his hands.
The jury foreman stood to deliver the news.
1 verdict at a time
The 10 women stood behind their lawyers, holding hands.
The first prisoner was awarded $335,000.
"This is a very good award, for this case," Dick Soble, one of the lawyers for the women, thought to himself.
The foreman moved down the list of plaintiffs, reading off the verdicts, all decided in favor of the women, awarding damages that ranged from hundreds of thousands of dollars to several million.
The women cried and hugged and passed around a box of tissues, wiping tears from their eyes.
Finally, it was Bunton's turn.
Bunton, who had served more than 16 years of a 25- to 50-year sentence for her role in a drug deal that ended in murder, stood, rocking side to side.
"Was plaintiff subject to unwelcome sexual conduct or communication?" the jury foreman read from the form.
"Yes," the foreman replied.
"Do you independently find, based on the evidence in this case, that the defendants had notice of a sexually hostile prison environment?" the foreman asked.
This was key. It meant that the three defendants -- the Department of Corrections, former DOC Director Kenneth McGinnis and former warden Joan Yukins -- knew there was a problem at Scott and failed to do something to stop the abuse.
Then, the foreman announced the damages. Bunton was awarded $3.45 million.
Bunton kept rocking, now in disbelief.
She couldn't hear what the foreman said next. Her heart was pounding so hard, and everybody was crying so loudly, all she could hear was her own heartbeat, thumping in her ears. She watched one of her lawyers write down the number and stared at all the zeroes.
'Thank you for believing in us'
In total, the women were awarded $15.4 million. With attorney fees and interest, because the case was delayed for so many years, the total climbs to $40 million, according to Deborah LaBelle, the lead lawyer for the women.
But there was more. Something unusual and unexpected.
A woman on the jury asked to read a statement.
"We the members of the jury," she began, "as representatives of the citizens of Michigan, would like to express our extreme regret and apologies for what you have been through."
The 28-word statement marked the first time anyone had apologized to the women.
"Thank you," Connors said. In 17 years as a trial judge, Connors had never heard of a jury making such a statement to a plaintiff.
"I understand the plaintiffs would like to make a statement to you," Connors told the jury.
Bunton stepped forward.
"Thank you," she said softly. "You know, for so many years, we felt like no one cared, and our lawyers cared and they believed in us, but we felt they were just a few. Even now, today, when I go back to the prison, I don't have somebody to check on me."
Pointing at the jury, Bunton said, "I know you guys care."
"It's so hard for us. We are scared. Even now, I'm scared. But I feel strong today, because of you. I thank you for believing in us."
"All rise," the bailiff said.
The next group of female inmates went to trial last October, resulting in yet another multimillion-dollar verdict. With more than 500 women in the class action, these cases could go on for years, with many of the same witnesses, the same experts, the same lawyers. If other juries issue similar verdicts, damages could add up to hundreds of millions in state taxpayer dollars.
Bunton, on paper anyway, was now a millionaire.
But she was still a convict, inmate No. 221034. And no jury award would change that.
When the court session ended, seven of the 10 women were returned to Scott Correctional Facility just as they had left.
In belly chains.
After the verdict, everything changed. In some respects, prison life became more difficult for the women in the suit. Bunton felt like she was living under a spotlight, as if everybody was watching -- other prisoners and the guards.
Some inmates asked Bunton for money. They didn't realize she had not received a penny because the verdict is under appeal.
"Right now," Burton told them, "all I have is an apology."
She was afraid of being given a misconduct ticket by a guard.
She didn't want to screw up her next goal: to get her 25- to 50-year prison term commuted.
Facing the parole board
Five days after the verdict, Bunton learned that she was granted a commutation hearing, set for March. If she could convince the state parole board she deserved to get out early, the board would recommend her release to Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Bunton's case was presented by Bridget McCormack, an associate dean at the University of Michigan law school.
"I wanted the parole board to get a picture of how unique Toni is," McCormack said. "I wanted them to know the person she became, despite the circumstances."
Bunton's lawsuit never came up before the parole board.
Instead, an assistant attorney general grilled Bunton about the shooting that landed her in prison, going through the crime moment by moment.
At every step, the parole board was trying to find inconsistencies. They were testing her truthfulness. Whether she was a danger to the public. Whether she was taking responsibility for her role as getaway driver in a drug shooting that left one teen dead, another paralyzed. Or just making excuses.
"I was found guilty by a jury," Bunton told the board. "I accept that, and I accept the aiding and abetting theory and all of those other things. And I am not trying to minimize my role, either. This is a horrible crime."
Bunton told the parole board she plans to work with young girls and show them there is another way, so "they don't make the same mistakes I made."
Bunton said she has come to terms with the fact that she is a convicted murderer, and she hopes to be forgiven by the family of the victims.
She said she thinks about the victims every day of her life.
No witness spoke in opposition to Bunton's release. Ayman Kaji, who was shot during the crime and remains paralyzed from the neck down, had told state prison officials he wanted to be alerted if Bunton ever came up for parole, but he hadn't updated his contact information after moving, according to prison officials.
Supporters eager to speak
During the hearing, Bunton said that if she got out of prison, she planned to go to college to study criminal justice or journalism or go to law school. She received three degrees in prison, but she thought the professors might have taken it easy on inmates, and the degrees didn't mean as much outside.
"If you release me, I will do good and I will deal with whatever I deal with out there," she said. "I know it's hard."
McCormack asked several people to speak on Bunton's behalf, including friends, relatives, professors, even author and spiritualist Marianne Williamson.
Carolyn Kraus, a professor at U-M Dearborn who taught Bunton a course on memoir writing, told the parole board that there are so many people rooting for Bunton, there would be a competition to hire her.
"From the first day in the memoir class, she was sitting in the front row, and every time I asked a question, her hand went up," Kraus said.
"She writes about her life without self-pity," Kraus continued. "She writes about others with insight and empathy."
Signs of sympathy
At any given time, there are about 50,000 prisoners in Michigan prisons. Commutations are rare.
During Bunton's time in prison from 1991 until the commutation hearing last March, only 52 prisoner sentences had been commuted.
Charles Schettler Jr., representing the state Attorney General's Office, told Bunton he was surprised at the severity of her sentence. "Quite frankly, I have seen people who have committed second-degree murder who have had a much more active part in the second-degree murder than you get a shorter sentence. I can't deny it; this is a very long sentence."
Barbara Sampson, chairwoman of the Michigan Parole Board, said Bunton's excellent prison record indicated she has learned to make good choices.
The more Sampson talked, the more it sounded as if Bunton had a chance to get out. "Don't forget the hard nights," she said. "Don't forget the tough days. Don't forget not liking the food. Don't forget having to ask permission to go to the bathroom. Don't take anything for granted."
Freedom in the balance
After the hearing, Bunton's lawyers heard rumors that the board voted overwhelmingly to recommend clemency. But months passed, with no word.
Her lawyers started to fear bad news.
"Time went on, I felt more pessimistic," McCormack said. "It's a hard thing for the governor to do."
Toni Bunton's mother tried to keep her daughter's spirits up by visiting her at prison.
She spoke to her daughter every day by phone.
In July, the lawyers started hearing more rumors. Granholm was about to make a decision about Bunton's bid for commutation.
Bunton was on edge, wanting to know.
One way or the other.