On December 19, 2022, over 30 people joined a Hanukkah celebration at Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker’s home in Chicago to demand that he sign the executive clemency petition for Bernina Mata. The #FreeBernina Team and Love & Protect organized the action on the second night of Hanukkah, a celebration of a struggle for liberation, to urge Governor Pritzker to liberate Bernina, other criminalized survivors and all who are suffering under the violence of incarceration. The action was co-sponsored by American Friends Service Committee Chicago’s Peacebuilding Program, Tzedek Chicago, Chicago Light Brigade (shoutout @kellyhayeswrites), MAMAs, and the Transformative Justice Law Project.
People sang Hanukkah songs, heard powerful testimonies, and honored the Hanukkah tradition by creating a “Free Bernina” light installation. The crowd learned about the holiday from Tzedek Rabbi Brant Rosen and were led in song by cantor Adam Gottlieb and #Free Bernina Team member Debbie Southorn. April Ward of MAMAs shared a moving testimonial about the prison conditions her son, Mickiael Ward, is forced to endure in an IDOC prison and a moving tribute by Kelly Hayes of Lifted Voices. Joey Mogul, co-counsel for Bernina with Rachel White-Doman of the Illinois Prison Project, also described the State’s racist and homophobic prosecution of Bernina. To read more about the action, check out the article in Windy City Times.
In 1998, at 28 years old, Bernina stabbed and killed John Draheim in her home after he attempted to sexually assault her. The State charged Bernina with capital murder, despite significant mitigating circumstances including her extensive history of sexual abuse at the hands of her step-father and father and her belief that she was about to be raped.
To secure the death penalty, the State seized on Bernina’s racial and sexual identity to argue that she intentionally killed him. The State claimed Draheim was making an unwanted sexual pass at her, and that caused Bernina as a “hard core lesbian” him to kill him. A prosecutor argued “a normal heterosexual woman would not be offended by such conduct as to murder.” During Bernina’s trial, the State paraded 10 witnesses before the jury who testified she was gay, presented 3 books from her bookcase with gay titles and referenced her lesbian sexual identity on 17 occasion to prejudice a Boone County jury to motivate them to convict and kill her. She was sentenced to die in 1999.
In 2003, her death sentence was commuted to life as part of a successful clemency campaign. She is currently serving a life sentence. If prosecutors had not sought the death penalty, she would likely be free today. Her only chance to be free from prison is for Governor Pritzker to commute her life sentence.
The #FreeBernina Team is asking Governor Pritzker to grant her clemency petition and commute her sentence so she can come home in 2023. Please support her clemency petition by emailing Governor Pritzker and Lieutenant Governor Juliana Stratton here.
Joey and Kris Clutter, a paralegal at the People’s Law Office, are proud members of the #Free Bernina team.
Photos thanks @kellyhayeswrites!