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?"
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.