Convicted Murderer Released After 18 Years in Prison

Gov. shortens Stacey Lannert's life sentence after finding evidence of abuse.

March 25, 2009, 9:47 AM

March 26, 2009 — -- Stacey Lannert shot and killed her father when she was 18 years old. Now, after spending almost two decades in prison, she is a free woman.

Her clemency petition sat on the desk of three different Missouri governors, until Gov. Matt Blunt commuted Lannert's life sentence in January after an "exhaustive review of the evidence" in which he determined that Lannert had suffered extensive abuse at the hands of her father, Thomas Lannert. She was released from prison shortly after that.

"I still can't believe it," Lannert, 36, said of her release. "I'm very humbled and grateful, just so thankful to God. I know that I made mistakes, but the rest of my life was a huge -- a harsh sentence. And just hoping that eventually that I'd receive another chance."

St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch, however, thinks Lannert is a manipulative liar who deserves to live out the rest of her life in prison.

"I have not changed my mind at all about Stacey Lannert. She murdered her father for his inheritance, and solely for his inheritance," he said, referring to the estate worth nearly $500,000 that she stood to inherit. McCulloch also argued that Lannert "spent wildly," forging her father's name on checks and using his credit cards before she took his life.

"She was never sexually abused by her father or anyone else, and she ought to be back in the penitentiary, and shame on Gov. Blunt for letting her out," McCulloch said.

But Lannert denies having "spent wildly" and said her father knew about the checks and the credit cards. She claims she killed her father to stop him from abusing her and her younger sister, Christy. Money, she said, had nothing to do with it.

"I wanted him to leave me alone. I wanted him to leave her alone. I didn't really necessarily want him to die, but I didn't want him to be able to ... hurt us again, to be able to get us," Lannert told ABC News correspondent Cynthia McFadden in 2002. ABC News has covered Lannert's story for the past seven years.

Lannert shot her father point blank while he was passed out drunk on the couch, eventually confessing to police that she "hated him" and that "he needed to die."

Her sister told McFadden they both felt that way at the time.

Christy Lannert said she was in first grade when her father started beating her, and that she was 12 when her father began pushing her to drink alcohol with him. The more he drank, she said, the more violent he became. To this day, she can't bear to see the home she and her sister grew up in.

"I don't care to see the stairs that he used to kick me down. I don't, I don't want to see the windows that I would have to climb out at night," she said. "So I didn't have to wake up being choked."

'Nobody Stopped Him'

Stacey Lannert said she was spared the beatings but suffered another kind of torture at the hands of her father. She was just 8, she said, when he started fondling her, and when that led to oral sex, she remembered wondering if all fathers were like that.

"I did not know until the very first time that he raped me. Because then it hurt and it was violent. And I could tell that that wasn't right," she said. "I was 9."

According to Lannert, her father continued to rape her over the next nine years, sometimes as often as three times a week.

"Any man who can hold his daughter down and rape her is evil," she said. "And nobody stopped him. No one." That included Lannert's baby sitter, who confirmed to ABC News that she suspected abuse when Lannert was 12.

Lannert's mother, Deb Underwood, said she was unaware of what was happening to her daughters before and after her divorce. Otherwise, she would never have left them with their father.

"What I felt was that he loved them and he would not hurt them. I thought he loved his daughters," she said. "I feel like I failed to protect my children … and I will never ever forget that. I will never live this down no matter what."

McCulloch said that's not a believable statement.

"He was not Ozzie Nelson, no. He was a bad father," McCulloch said. "He was a bad parent, and he was a bad drunk. But there is no evidence that he was sexually abusing. You know you can be a rotten SOB and still not be a rapist."

McCulloch said Lannert is lying "through her teeth."

"The only credible evidence of any sort of motive is that she did it for the money," McCulloch said. "And she's not going to get her hands on it unless she -- unless she takes out her father."

McCulloch wondered why if things were so bad, Lannert didn't just leave.

But she had tried. Six months before the murder she went to live with her mother 7,000 miles away, on the Island of Guam, only to return home after a desperate call from Christy.

"All I really cared about was making sure that Christy never had to go through that pain that I had to go through, ever. I never wanted that for her," Lannert said.

She said she begged her father to let her take her sister away, but he told her no.

"All he wanted her for was to control me," she said.

One month later, Lannert shot her father and confessed to Lt. Tom Schulte, telling him that the years of abuse had led to the murder.

Schulte remembered, "The last thing that I told that young lady when I left her -- and it was late that night, I told her, 'I'll be there for you.'"

But the prosecutor didn't call him to testify, even though Schulte had spent years investigating child sex crimes, and he was the first person to question Lannert.

"I didn't fit in with the focus of the prosecution at that time," Schulte said, adding that the prosecutor was hungry for a first degree murder conviction. For years, Lannert felt frustrated and betrayed because Schulte hadn't testified. It wasn't until recently that she learned he would have testified on her behalf had he been called to the witness stand.

Schulte purposefully refrained from contacting Lannert while she was in prison. He didn't want his affidavit to be colored by anything other than his observations on the night he had questioned her.

Stacey Lannert's Confession

After first suggesting that a burglar had murdered her father, Lannert ended up confessing on video as Schulte asked her to guide him through the crime scene.

She told police that she and her father had argued earlier in the day. When her two sisters came home very late they crawled through the basement window, hoping he was asleep and afraid he was drunk. They often sneaked into the house this way.

But Christy accidentally woke their father, and Lannert said her sister and father started yelling at each other.

"What's in my head is that we're leaving. We're leaving, and if you try to stop us I'm going to kill you. That's what's in my head," she told McFadden.

She said she spotted her father's gun in the basement, grabbed it and went upstairs. By then her father had passed out again. She held the gun a few feet from where he lay, rested it on a ledge, closed her eyes and pulled the trigger.

She hadn't aimed, however, so her dad had been hit in the shoulder.

"He woke up," Stacey said on the police video. "He thought that he had broke his collarbone."

Tom Lannert was too drunk to know he'd been shot. He sat up, startled, with a bullet in his shoulder and called out to Stacey for help.

"And then I thought to myself that he didn't deserve to live. So I shot him again," she said, looking down.

"I didn't care," Lannert told McFadden.

Her sister, Christy, said she also wanted her father dead. "I may have said, 'Just do it,'" Christy said.

The Lannert Jury's Dilemma

The jury heard from both Lannert and from the baby sitter she confided in about the years of sexual abuse. In some states, if a jury believed claims of abuse, Lannert could have pleaded self-defense even though at the moment she shot her father, he was passed out drunk. But under Missouri law, the self-defense argument was not valid because she wasn't in actual danger at the moment she pulled the trigger.

After a one-week trial, the jury voted to convict Lannert of murder in the first degree, which carried a mandatory sentence in Missouri: life in prison with no chance of parole.

"The verdict was absolutely appropriate. It's the verdict that should have been returned. She got the sentence that she deserved, and that's where she ought to be," McCulloch said.

Lannert's lawyer began petitioning for her release, and a key part of that request was an affidavit by Schulte. Two governors dismissed the request, but Blunt believed Lannert had been abused, and on Jan. 16, she was set free.

After 18 years in prison, Lannert met up with her mother and her sister as a free woman.

"I'm so happy," she said, hugging them.

She later told McFadden that she had managed to stay sane and optimistic by learning how to train dogs for the handicapped.

"You can find freedom in prison if you look for it," she said. "I chose to train the dogs, I chose not to get into fights or arguments. And you make choices and you find your freedom where you can."

For now, she continues her volunteer work while looking for a steady job. She stays busy adjusting to the modern world and all of its technological advances, such as using a cell phones or surfing the Internet.

After about a week of freedom Lannert decided to meet with Schulte for the first time since her imprisonment, knowing everything he did to try and win her freedom.

"I haven't seen him or spoken to him this entire time, but I feel a connection with him that I'll probably never feel with another human being because he was the first person who helped me, who believed me," she said. "It took a long time for it to come to fruition, but he did stand behind me and helped. And I'm just very thankful."

They met up again on a cold, snowy day in St. Louis in late January.

"You owe me something," Schulte said.

"What's that?" Lannert asked.

"You need to train my dog for me," said Schulte.

She smiled. "OK, anytime."

During their reunion, Lannert said she hoped to make Schulte, and all of the people who supported her, proud.

"The justice system really did, to me, prevailed in the end. Others might not agree but to me it did," Lannert said.

Stacey Lannert is currently developing a resource Web site for sexual abuse survivors called Healing Sisters.

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