Michigan inmate dying of cancer begs Gov. Whitmer for freedom after 46 years
For eight days this summer, Theresa Dunlap lay shackled to a hospital bed, battling stage 4 lung cancer and COVID-19 while mold grew in her chemo port.
The 66-year-old prisoner pleaded through tears for the chains to be removed, but was met with a stony silence that continues to torment her.
Dunlap, a lifer who has been in prison for 46 years for killing a woman and assaulting another, is dying. With the cancer now in her brain and bones, Dunlap's family wants to bring her home to West Bloomfield so that she can spend her final days surrounded in the comfort of loved ones, not in the gray, lonely world of prison hospice. Only nobody is listening, her family says, and nobody cares.
Whitmer, parole board decline pleas for mercy
A sick, frail woman who must use a walker or wheelchair to get around is a threat to no one, they argue, stressing that Dunlap is redeemed, rehabilitated and remorseful.
Unless the goal is to punish her more, there's no reason to keep her locked up, human rights advocates protest. It's cruel and expensive, they say. Let her go, they say.
But the Michigan Parole Board isn't budging. Neither is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
On July 1, the parole board denied Dunlap's request for a medical commutation, citing, in part, her 1976 first-degree murder conviction for fatally shooting a woman, and another conviction that year for her role in the group torture of a woman who was tied up, stabbed, shot and left for dead by the Detroit River. Dunlap had injected her with a "massive dose" of heroin laced with bleach that night, according to trial testimony, though the woman survived.
Without elaborating, the parole board concluded Dunlap's request had no merit.
The governor could exercise her executive powers and free Dunlap without the parole board's approval. But Whitmer, a former prosecutor who is up for reelection, has opted not to exercise that power.
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Mom 'belongs to us'
"She shouldn’t have to die there," said Dunlap's son, 49-year-old Marsay Dunlap, who was 3 when his mom went away to prison.
"My mother has been in there for 46 years. She has saved a lot of women's lives. She has been a pillar of the prison community, has taught many women and blessed many women who have never come back to the prison," Marsay Dunlap said in a recent Free Press interview. "We want her out. She belongs to us."
Marsay Dunlap wants to reconnect with the mother he never knew as a child, the mother who wrote him letters from prison, encouraged him to study and stay strong, and told him to remember that she loved him "until death."
"I want much happiness and the good life for you," she wrote him in a 2001 letter. "Baby, things will get better for us with time in our favor for sure."
But Marsay Dunlap fears time is running out. Someone needs to act quickly, he says. His mom is dying.
"She has stage 4 cancer," Marsay Dunlap said. "What else do you guys want from her?"
A night of torture
Theresa Dunlap upended her life in the spring of 1976.
She was 20, a single mom with a toddler, a ninth-grade education, and a $40 to $50 daily dope habit. Her social circle included other drug users, several of whom wound up in prison for their actions on the evening of March 22, 1976.
That's the night Theresa Dunlap and a group of friends tortured a 19-year-old woman in Dunlap's east-side home on Lycaste Street, where the victim was bound by wires at the hands and feet, injected with laced heroin, stabbed in the head with scissors, beaten with a belt, stuffed in the trunk of a red Cadillac, and then taken to the Detroit River in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, where she was shot multiple times and left for dead.
According to trial testimony, this was payback for a previous attack on Dunlap, who had been tortured for three hours when she was 18, and believed the woman in her home had set her up for that assault.
Surprisingly, the 19-year-old woman survived and later testified against her attackers, telling jurors it was Dunlap who had ordered another woman to tie her up before injecting her with laced heroin.
"She shot it right here in my hand," the woman testified at trial, during which she recalled the terrifying 15-minute ride in the trunk of the Cadillac, music "blasting" in her ears, and how she requested to be shot while lying down.
'I really couldn't feel anything because of the dope'
"They took me out to the river ... stood me up ... I said, 'You going to shoot me, shoot me laying down,' " the woman testified, noting she fell to the ground.
A man got on his knees, cocked a pistol and shot her in the neck.
"I really couldn't feel anything because of the dope," the woman testified, adding she heard someone say, "'She's not dead yet.'"
So the man shot her two more times, in the arm and elbow, and left her at the river.
Two days later, one of the participants in the crime wound up dead: 22-year-old Leotha Williams — the woman who had bound the victim's hands and feet at Dunlap's request, beat her with a belt and drove the Cadillac to the river that night.
Williams was killed in a home on Mendota Street, where witnesses said Dunlap followed her into a bathroom and shot her nine times.
"She was afraid (Williams) might talk," a witness testified at trial.
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Theresa Dunlap was convicted of first-degree murder following a 1976 jury trial, and assault with intent to commit murder for her role in the group torture. She received a life sentence with no parole for the murder conviction, and 50-80 years for the assault.
According to prison records, Dunlap has received three misconducts in her 46 years behind bars: One for refusing to leave the dining room when ordered. One for being late for work. And one for hitting an inmate in the back of a head with a padlock she stuffed into a sock, which triggered a third felony conviction.
'Clemency not warranted'
To receive a pardon or commutation in Michigan, a prisoner must file an application with the parole board, which reviews the application and then makes a recommendation to the governor.
This was done in Dunlap's case as a coalition of prisoner and civil rights advocates, lawmakers and current and former inmates all sought mercy on her behalf in a medical commutation request. The group appealed to the governor in a June 6 letter, urging Whitmer to use her authority to expedite the matter.
"Her health is quickly deteriorating," the letter states. "Since the cancer was discovered in December, it has spread to her brain and spine, and a large mass was recently discovered in her chest and back."
Three weeks later, a prison administrator handed Dunlap a one-page letter from Parole Board Chairman Brian Shipman.
"Dear Prisoner Dunlap," the July 1 letter began "... after a thorough review of the application materials, your convictions for murder first degree, assault with intent to commit murder and an assault with a dangerous weapon ... the parole board determined that the petition did not have merit, and advised the governor of its recommendation that executive clemency was not warranted."
The letter did not specify why or how the parole board reached its conclusion, noting: "It is the policy of the governor's office not to comment on denied applications."
The letter concluded: "Unless there has been a substantial change in circumstances ... you may reapply in two years."
Whitmer's record: No clemency for violent crimes
Whitmer's office had little to say about Dunlap's case, beyond noting that the governor has consistently upheld the parole board's findings when it comes to commutation requests from prisoners.
"Governor Whitmer has followed the parole board’s recommendation in each of the commutations granted or denied to date," Whitmer press secretary Bobby Leddy said in a statement to the Free Press. "As a former prosecutor, Governor Whitmer has continued to work with law enforcement and criminal justice advocates to hold people accountable for their actions while also building a smarter and more equitable justice system within our state."
Since taking office in 2019, Whitmer has granted clemency to four prisoners — none of whom committed violent crimes, but rather were convicted for drug crimes. One of the prisoners had received two life terms for cocaine-related crimes.
In 2019, Whitmer also signed laws letting Michigan release seriously ill and incapacitated prisoners early by having them treated at nursing homes or hospitals instead. The idea was to help the state treat its aging prisoner population while reducing costs. But the medical parole laws do not apply to those serving life without parole, or those convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Congress in 2018 also established a new path for federal inmates to win so-called compassionate release, but in the states, it is "the exception rather than the rule," according to a 2018 report by Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Ashley Nellis, a research analyst for the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reforms, wrote that clemency "was common for older people serving life sentences 60 years ago." But it was "nearly terminated by the 1970s, and is still rarely used today."
Dunlap is among more than 55,000 American prisoners serving life without parole — a group of people whose only option for freedom is executive clemency. Michigan has more than 4,800 such prisoners — three-fourths of whom killed someone. They rarely get out.
Over the last decade, more than 170 Michigan prisoners have had their sentences commuted by governors, including 44 convicted murderers. Of those released, only one returned to prison.
Theresa Dunlap "was very young when this situation happened," said daughter-in-law Takeyla Dunlap, who has played a key role in helping her husband build a relationship with his mother. "She’s very well wanted. She has a brand new great-grandbaby that we would love for her to be able to see ... we would love for her to be home for that."
Shackles. Tears. Isolation.
Dunlap is in a hospice unit at the Women's Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, where she is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. She has asked to be removed from the infirmary to be near trusted inmate friends who can comfort her and look after her.
The prison won't allow it. She's too sick, they say. She needs special care.
Dunlap is lonely. She can't have visitors in her room at the infirmary — even the aides have to stay outside.
Adding to her misery are the handcuffs and shackles.
Under prison security rules, Dunlap must be restrained every time she leaves the prison, which is what happened when she was transported to St. Joseph's Hospital on July 11, when her blood sugar dropped in the hospice unit, and she was found unresponsive.
Against her wishes, she was shackled to a hospital bed for eight days while security officers stayed outside her room.
"I was crying and everything. I told them, 'I can't stay here. I got to go ... This is abuse.' I was out of my mind," Dunlap said in a recent phone interview with a prisoner advocate. "I just conked out. And I prayed that God help me deal with it."
Her family had no idea this was going on. Days had passed and no one had heard from her, which was unusual.
"We find out she’s at St. Joseph's Hospital. She’s been shackled to a hospital bed the whole time. ... I'm livid," said Natalie Holbrook, a prison rights advocate with the American Friends Service Committee, which has been leading the fight for Dunlap's release.
"That kind of end-of-life treatment — it’s just beyond reprehensible," Holbrook said of the shackles. "And it's not necessary."
Dunlap's advocates also complained to the governor, writing: "Not only is this painful for her, but dangerous because she has blood clots in her legs."
It was Holbrook who notified Dunlap's family about her hospitalization.
Dunlap was released from the hospital on July 18, one day before her 67th birthday. Her family was not informed.
MDOC: Shackles standard treatment
Chris Gautz, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Corrections, said it is standard security procedure to restrain any prisoner who is taken off-site. A doctor can request that shackles or handcuffs be removed for medical reasons, he said.
"In this case, there was no call that was made by a doctor to remove it," Gautz said of the shackles.
According to Dunlap's legal team, a nurse asked the officers to remove the shackles, though the MDOC said officers aren't allowed to do so unless a doctor or warden orders it.
Asked why the MDOC never notified Dunlap's family about her hospitalization, Gautz said family is typically contacted only if "there are extreme circumstances and a death-bed visit needs to be arranged."
"Her condition wasn’t life-threatening. She just had to go to the hospital," Gautz said.
Advocates say medical review was required
Holbrook believes the parole board mishandled Dunlap's case.
Specifically, Holbrook and other advocates say the board issued its decision without ever ordering up a medical review, which, they maintain, is required by statute. Rather than give Dunlap's case a thorough review, they say, the parole board quickly looked at her application and convictions, and issued a decision.
Equally frustrating, Holbrook added, is that Whitmer is standing with the parole board's decision when she has the constitutional authority to act on her own and free Dunlap, whose ordeal is now headed to the courts.
This week, the University of Michigan Law Clinic filed what's known as a "writ of mandamus" with the Court of Claims, asking it to interpret the medical commutation statute under which Dunlap is seeking relief.
Dunlap's legal team argues that her medical file is key to her case and that the parole board needs to let Whitmer see it.
"It's a medical commutation," Holbrook said, "so why in the world have they not sent a medical report to the governor's office?"
'I believe in second chances'
Theresa Dunlap is a native Detroiter who grew up in a broken home, raised by a single mom who struggled to make ends meet as a nurse's aide in a convalescent home.
She attended Cass Technical High School through the ninth grade, had a child at 18, got hooked on drugs, and wound up in the criminal justice system at the age of 20, where she battled depression and episodes of paranoia.
"I am full of sorrow and pain," Dunlap wrote the parole board in 2020. "I have learned not to let it define me, nor deter me from bettering myself. I can't imagine the pain and sorrow I caused."
Perhaps most difficult, Dunlap wrote, was forgiving herself for something she couldn't undo, "for taking someone's precious life away from her and loved ones."
"Each day I wake up to reality and wish I could take back what I did to the Williams family," she wrote.
Williams' surviving twin sister, who identified her body in the morgue in 1976, could not be reached for comment.
While in prison, Dunlap mentored hundreds of other women doing hard time, got her GED, grew her spirituality in the Jehovah's Witness faith, participated in pastoral work, and attended classes and talk groups that, she said, helped me "overcome my inner battles."
"My transformative journey has not been easy," Dunlap wrote. "I have invested much of my healing process into being humble and disciplined. I am asking for grace and mercy."
She added: "I do believe in second chances."
The prison mother figure
For seven years, Betty Brown shared a prison cell with Dunlap.
They were "bunkies," and Dunlap helped her endure the 20 years she got for second-degree murder: Brown was in a getaway car during a fatal drug-related shooting in the Lansing area.
It was Dunlap who kept her going in prison, who taught her who to stay away from, and coached her on how to do the right thing so she could go home one day.
"When people first came into prison, she was always there to help them," 64-year-old Brown recalled. "They would come in crying ... Hugs weren’t allowed, but she would put her arms around them. The officers respected her very much. They could see it was a comforting arm around someone who was troubled."
Brown remembers Dunlap as the prison mother figure, the one inmates would go to if they were missing their kids, had family problems, or if someone was picking on them.
"She always said, 'Look to the Bible. Look to the word and let it guide you. Calm down. It's going to be OK,' " Brown recalled.
Perhaps most notably, she said, Dunlap prepared her for life outside.
"She would say, 'It's going to be different out there. You just have to learn how to be patient. Tolerate things. Society is more dangerous now,' " said Brown, who fought back tears as she discussed her friend's predicament.
Brown was released in 2018, and prays her friend will one day meet her on the outside.
"She's a good person. She deserves to come home," Brown said through tears. "We just want her to come home, to eat a good meal, to see a zoo or something, even if just in a wheelchair ... we're not going to let this go and give up."
Brown now lives in Lansing, works for the AARP and volunteers at a soup kitchen. When she got out of prison, she lived in a homeless shelter for the first six months, surrounded by drug addicts and alcoholics. She was nervous, scared, but clung to the advice Dunlap gave her in prison.
"She said to let the Holy Spirit guide me, and that’s what I did," Brown said.
Support for a young inmate
LaWanda Hollister was 17 when she went to prison for killing a woman her boyfriend cheated on her with.
Dunlap had already been inside for 10 years, and took Hollister under her wing.
Like the time Hollister was placed in charge of the kitchen at 19. The older inmates wouldn't listen to her, and made her do their work, so Dunlap told her to report them.
Hollister heeded her advice and went to her supervisor, while Dunlap quietly rounded up the women in the kitchen and said, 'Y'all need to listen to her.'"
"She explained the difference between snitchin' and protecting yourself, and I was grateful for that," recalled Hollister, who served 34 years in prison for second-degree murder.
"(Dunlap) was there when I got there. She was there when I left," Hollister said. "She was a scolder. She was a promoter. She encouraged me."
Hollister remembers the day she got out of prison. She had moving boxes in her cell, and fellow inmates had left her gifts. Dunlap had slipped her some toilet paper. The pandemic had just hit.
"Everybody was saying they were running out of toilet paper," Hollister said, laughing.
Hollister, 53, now lives in Ypsilanti, works for a housing organization and helps transition homeless people into homes.
"Her help was immeasurable," she said of Dunlap "I'm now in a whole new world. I have no guidance. I have no Theresa."
But she has the lessons she learned inside. And she's fighting to get her old friend out.
"Where’s the humanity? The compassion? Do we have none of that?" Hollister said. "The lady has been in prison for 46 years. She is dying. What is the problem with her passing away with her family? "
The day Hollister left prison, Dunlap came out to see her. They said their goodbyes and Dunlap told her to keep her nose clean.
"Once we turn to leave, they say don’t look back. I didn’t then. But once I got out, I did," said Hollister, noting she sent a letter to the governor, pleading with her to release Dunlap.
"I did my time. I was a hellion when I first went in," Hollister said. "This is what I’m doing with my second chance."
She's fighting for her friend.
"That's my look back," she said.
Tresa Baldas is an award-winning courts and justice issues reporter and was named the 2020 Richard Milliman "Michigan" Journalist of the Year by the Michigan Press Association. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Theresa Dunlap, dying Michigan inmate, begs Gov. Whitmer for freedom