Supporters Applaud Plan to Release Scott Sisters in Kidney Deal

PHOTO Miss. Parole Board Considers Scott Sisters CasePlayABC News
WATCH Mississippi Governor to Suspend Life Sentences

Civil rights advocates and family are cheering the suspension of life sentences for Gladys and Jamie Scott in a deal signed today that includes one woman donating a kidney to keep her sister alive.

Backers have long claimed that the women, who are African-American, were innocent and their life prison sentences for an armed robbery -- reportedly for $11 -- were tinged with racism.

The case had drawn the attention of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour who twice appealed to the Mississippi Parole Board because Jamie Scott, now 38, suffers from kidney disease and requires daily dialysis.

Barbour said their release was contingent on Gladys Scott, now 36, donating a kidney to her sister. Gladys Scott has agreed to the procedure to help her ailing sister.

The 1994 Mississippi case stirred memories of the an older, racist South, as the two young women -- then 19 and 21 -- were accused of masterminding the robbery of two men on a roadside in Forest, Miss.

Claiming their innocence all along, the sisters said their car had broken down and three male acquaintances who had given them a ride, had actually committed the crime at gunpoint.

The Scott sisters, who had no prior records, later claimed that the African-American boys -- two brothers and a cousin -- were coerced into testifying against them.

"The incident itself was not racial in any way, but the way it was handled had a racial prism to it," said the sisters' lawyer, Chokwe Lumumba. "Two white girls would have no way gotten two life sentences."

The Scott sisters' case was "such a grave miscarriage of justice," said Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the Mississippi ACLU, which had been pushing for the sisters' release.

"I am so glad they are getting out now," said Lambright. "They can finally enjoy time with their family."

The Scott sisters have five children between them, youngsters who grew up without a mother and now have children of their own.

"How do you take two teenage girls and some teenage boys and rob a person for $11 and get life in prison," said their 46-year-old brother Willy Scott, who is home on leave after serving as an Army staff sergeant in Afghanistan. "Every day people commit terrible crimes and they don't get life in prison. They were kids. They weren't adults. They were children. How do you justify that?"

Scott Sisters to Have Life Terms Suspended

The sisters, who had exhausted all their appeals, would have been eligible for parole in 2014.

Last week nearly 200 people rallied, asking the governor to release the sisters. They have been backed for more than a decade by advocacy groups like the Innocence Project, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.

The Scott sisters' brother chastised the justice system that kept them from their family for 16 years.

"It's the Old South," Willy Scott said. "Don't be fooled, it hasn't changed very much. The only difference now is they mask it better."

"The judge has a notorious past of racial judicial decisions," Lambright said. "It was a very complicated case and there have been some mishandling on the part of their public defense. So much that went wrong shouldn't have gone wrong. And it all should have been immediately rectified."

The judge who oversaw the case, Judge Marcus Gordon, was the same judge who sentenced Ku Klux Klan member Edgar Ray "Preacher" Killen to a 20-year sentence for the 1964 killing of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

Killen was found guilty of three counts of manslaughter on June 21, 2005, the 41st anniversary of the so-called "Mississippi Burning" case and received a much lighter sentence than the Scott sisters.

According to court records, the Scott sisters were found guilty of luring two men down a road where the Patrick boys used a shotgun to rob the men. No one was injured and the gun was reportedly never found.

The sisters was convicted of two counts of armed robbery and sentenced to two life sentences.

Gladys and Jamie Scott had known the Patrick boys because they had worked together at a factory. On the night of the crime, the sisters were driving to the store when Jamie Scott's car broke down. An acquaintance of Gladys from her factory job picked the girls up and began to harass them sexually, according to Halima Olifema, who is a member of the Free the Scott Sisterscommittee.

"One of them feigned getting out of the vehicle and so they were able to get out of the car," she said. "The girls walked away from the car and then went about their business. The following day, the sheriff's department came to their home and said they were implicated."

Gov. Barbour Pressed for Release of Gladys and Jamie Scott

According to Olifema, the boys were coerced into testifying against the girls. "They, too, were scared," she said.

"They never should have been placed in jail at all," Olifema said of the sisters. "Even if they were not innocent, people who are literally murdered only get a slap on the wrist and don't even get six months in jail."

Barbour's press secretary Dan Turner told ABCNews.com that the amount reportedly taken in the 1994 robbery, $11, was "an urban myth," and at least several hundred dollars was netted in the crime.

"The other thing to remember was the sentence was not handed out by a judge, but by a biracial jury of their peers," he said.

For years, civil rights activists called for their release, saying the sentences were excessive. Those demands gained traction when Barbour asked the Mississippi Parole Board to take another look at the case.

Parole Board Chairman Shannon Warnock had said the board would read the sentencing guidelines and delivered on his promise to have a decision by the end of the year.

The governor's press secretary Turner said Barbour had pursued their release because Jamie Scott needed a transplant.

"There was a medical necessity, as a preferential consideration," he said. "It's also expensive for the taxpayers to keep a seriously ill person incarcerated. If [Jamie] can have this procedure, it very likely will be done through Medicaid…There are a lot of facets to it and there are arguments on each side of the ledger."

The sisters are also hoping to be allowed to move to Pensacola, Fla., to be with their mother, Evelyn Rasco, who led the fight for her daughters' release. Rasco did not return calls from ABCNews.com.

"We think they will be released in a week or two," said the sisters' lawyer.

Barbour is a Republican in his second term who has been mentioned as a possible presidential contender in 2012. He said the parole board agreed with the indefinite suspension of their sentences, which is different from a pardon or commutation because it comes with conditions.

An "indefinite suspension of sentence" can be reversed if the conditions are not followed, but those requirements are usually things like meeting with a parole officer, according to Turner.