When someone commits a murder, they typically serve time in prison. But Donna Marie Wisener’s case was different because she was found innocent of first-degree murder. She never tried to deny what she did and admitted to her crime immediately, but the jury sympathized with her.
From the time she was a toddler until the day she shot her father, Wisener suffered from years of abuse at his hands and couldn’t take it any longer. She realized that nothing would stop him. A Texas law saved her from years behind bars, but others weren’t as lucky.
The Night That Changed Everything
On May 24, 1991, Donna Marie Wisener argued with her father, Glenn Wisener, over her job, some car keys, and her boyfriend. The argument wasn’t an unusual event in their household, but she had had enough. The heated fight culminated in her killing Glenn in the kitchen of their Tyler, Texas home.
Earlier in the evening, Glenn threw Donna against the wall and hit her head repeatedly. She watched as Glenn beat her mother unconscious before throwing Donna out of the house. In despair, she returned home, took a gun from his bedside table and fired six times at her father.
The Pain Began as a Toddler
From the time Donna was two years old, her father abused her harshly. It started with hitting and quickly escalated to more severe forms of punishment. To mark his displeasure, Glenn threw oak logs at her. He also handcuffed her to a chair for his own amusement. As she started to get older, things got worse.
Glenn began assaulting Donna in cruel ways. He gave her Valentine’s cards that read, “I would like your heart, and I assume the rest will follow.” He would give her “rubdowns,” and there was no one to save her. Donna’s mom, Mamie Wisener, was also Glenn’s victim.
Glenn Wisener Was Awful
Donna’s father was the kind of man who would beat his daughter unconscious and then give her a suggestive massage an hour later. He had a habit of whipping his wife with a belt when he didn’t like her behavior. Glenn would throw whatever was at hand at Mamie and Donna when he got angry.
If his eggs weren’t runny enough, Glenn would smash his plate and go on a tirade. He beat his stepson with branches, belts, hoes, and fists. No one was safe from Glenn’s temper, not even his livestock. Unfortunately, Mamie was too scared to take Donna and leave.
Things Seemed Normal
To the outside world, Donna seemed like a normal kid. She was a bright student, didn’t get into trouble, and had an after-school job. She even became captain of her high school majorette dance team. Even though it looked like she had it all together, Donna suffered every time she went home.
Her father was a truck driver, so Donna had relief when Glenn was at work or when she was at school. It was a living nightmare. From the time Donna could remember, she watched her father abuse her mom. He took his anger out on whomever was around, and she was constantly in survival mode.
He Asked for It
In one instance, Glenn got so angry that he handed Donna a loaded handgun and dared her to pull the trigger. She didn’t do it then, but it was probably tempting. It was as if he planted the seed in her head to kill him.
She was in a violent household her entire life, and it started to get to a point where she couldn’t handle it any longer. Donna was tired of seeing her mom in pain and believed he would never stop hurting them.
The Gun Wasn’t for Him
On the night she murdered her father, Donna was thrown out of the house. When she returned, she grabbed the gun from her father’s nightstand, but it wasn’t to use on him. Donna later explained that she took the revolver to take her own life.
However, she said Glenn had his hands out and looked like he would choke her, so she took aim. Donna fired the gun six times, hitting him in the head, hip, hand, back, and side. The first two shots would have been enough, but she freaked out.
She Tried to Take Her Life Before
Although she intended to take her life on the evening of the murder, it wasn’t the first time she had thought about this. Donna once had a gun in her mouth when she was discovered by her father. He told her, “Next time, do it right.”
Like other abused children, Donna thought this was the only way out. There was no one to confide in, and she couldn’t numb herself any longer. Although Donna didn’t want to leave her mother behind, at the time, she felt taking her life was the only solution.
The Cops Arrived
Shortly after the shooting, the police arrived and started questioning Donna. When a policeman asked her what happened, she said, “Isn’t it obvious?” while holding up her gunpowder-stained hands. Donna told them that her father didn’t fall down, so she emptied the cylinder.
She was scared, shaking, and in disbelief at what she had done. Donna never intended to kill him when she came back to the house but did feel a slight tinge of relief that he couldn’t hurt her family anymore. But then Donna worried about her future.
Trying to Remain Calm
Until Donna took the stand, she stayed calm throughout her trial. Eight months after killing her father, she sat in a courtroom as her fate hung in the hands of her lawyers, Paul A. Mones and Bryan Johnson. The 17-year-old prepared to give testimony.
While Mamie took the stand to testify in Donna’s defense, she sat with a straight face, twirling her hair and playing with a pen. She tried to be strong even though her future was up in the air. However, Donna’s composure would soon collapse.
Taking the Stand
When Donna recounted the evening she picked up a Smith & Wesson revolver and shot her father, she broke down in tears. The jury had just heard Mamie’s testimony of the abuse, and Donna shared her grotesque version of life with her father.
She told them about the sexually suggestive Valentines and how he broke two switches over her backside. Donna told the jury details of her horrific childhood and what led her to murder her dad. The jury heard these stories because of a new Texas law.
Texas Passed a New Law
In September 1991, Texas passed a new law permitting a person accused of killing any family member to introduce evidence of prior abuse. It also allowed for expert testimony on the peculiar psychology of victims of battering, including abused children. It came just in time for Donna’s case.
The testimonies of Donna and Mamie helped justify the killing. If this law hadn’t been introduced, Donna could have received at least 30 years in prison. Donna’s defense was the first use of the Texas law, and it was the only state to have a statute at the time.
The Jury Had Sympathy
After eight and a half hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted Donna of first-degree murder. They sympathized with her when she shared how awful her childhood was at the hands of her father. Her lawyers argued that she shot Glenn in self-defense.
Prosecutor Rod Boyles said he wasn’t surprised by the outcome of the trial based on the evidence the jury heard. Boyles knew he wouldn’t win because his request for a psychological evaluation of Donna was denied. He said his case was limited, and the jury felt bad.
An Unusual Advocate
To help her case, Donna had the help of Paul Mones from Santa Barbara, California. He was the only lawyer in the country whose clients consisted exclusively of boys and girls who had killed their mothers and fathers. He was a crucial factor in Donna’s case.
Mones said children have trouble with the laws because the world usually believes adults over them. When the Texas law passed, he said it recognized an abused child’s right to act in self-defense. Mones claimed the most effective defense consisted of showing visual signs of abuse.
In Donna’s case, her testimony was very useful, but Mones said that an effective defense in these cases consists largely of building a case against the victim. While a prosecutor has all the evidence they need to convict, a defendant doesn’t usually have recordings of the abuse.
When Mones went through Donna’s home, he found the handcuffs used on her, the lewd Valentine card, and the oak logs. When the jury saw the visual side of what Donna endured, it made a key difference in her trial because it made everything real.
Was It Self-Defense?
Although Donna’s lawyers argued that she shot her father in self-defense, a medical expert that testified at her trial said the wounds didn’t match that scenario. The self-defense argument usually requires fear of imminent or deadly harm. It was slightly different for Donna.
Mones said Donna acted in self-defense because she knew the abuse would continue if she didn’t do anything. It was difficult to introduce this argument because Mones believed that investigators, prosecutors, and judges don’t see the logic behind a parent’s slaying when there is abuse present.
With Mones’ help and the physical evidence to prove the abuse was real, Donna’s verdict reflected evolving public attitudes toward cases of children who kill their parents because of abusive situations. It was a breakthrough for parricides (when a child kills a parent).
Johnson said, “Maybe we’ve jumped that hurdle of being able to show a jury and a community that a child cannot endure years and years of severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and not be expected to defend themselves at some point.”
Her Case Was Not Unique
While it is always shocking to hear about a child killing their parent, Donna was not the first or the last person to do this. This type of crime is as old as civilization itself, and there have been many famous cases, including those of Lizzie Borden and the Menendez brothers.
The reason Donna’s case was different from other parricide cases was because her defense used the term “battered child syndrome,” and she was acquitted of the charges. Mones added that most of his cases are sons who kill their fathers.
Another Child Benefitted From the New Term
Shortly before Donna’s trial ended, a court in Washington State overturned a murder conviction of a 16-year-old boy sent to prison for killing his stepfather. The jury hadn’t been instructed about the “battered child syndrome” in the original trial, so he was later released.
In Mones’ book “When a Child Kills: Abused Children Who Kill Their Parents,” he writes that “Children have been playing catch-up for decades in every area of the law.” Children were seen as the property of their parents, so they never had the legal right to defend themselves.
There Was Another Girl Like Donna Wisener
Nine months after Donna was acquitted, Stacey Lannert’s trial began for the murder of her father in Missouri. Stacey was 18 years old when she shot her father in his sleep because he had sexually abused her since she was eight. Like Donna, Stacey reached her breaking point.
Stacey found out that her father began abusing her younger sister, Christy, and it was the catalyst that pushed her to murder him. On July 4, 1990, she snuck into her father’s home through a basement window and found a rifle to kill him.
Years of Horror
When Stacey was eight, the sexual abuse began. She didn’t understand what happened and wondered if all fathers were like that. When Tom Lannert raped her for the first time, she said it hurt and was violent. She was nine and knew it wasn’t normal.
According to Stacey, he continued to do this to her for nine years, sometimes as often as three times per week. Stacey said Tom was awful because “any man who could do that to his daughter is evil.” There were times when she thought it would never end.
Her Parents Divorced
Deborah and Tom Lannert divorced when Stacey was 13. Deborah remarried and moved to Guam, leaving her daughters in Tom’s care. Because his wife was no longer living at home, Tom started drinking more, and the abuse escalated to multiple attacks per week.
When Stacey reached her senior year of high school, she dropped out and moved in with her mom and stepfather. She didn’t feel welcomed, but she was now 7,000 miles away from her father. Christy was only 11 when she was left behind with Tom.
Cries for Help
When the abuse started, Tom told Stacey to keep it a secret. However, her mom, cousin, babysitter, and psychologist suspected she was being abused. Her mother once discovered a pair of bloody underwear on the basement stairs that led to the television room where Tom assaulted Stacey.
Although Deborah was suspicious, she didn’t say anything. Sometimes she heard Stacey crying in the basement, but since Tom was downstairs with her, she thought he would take care of her tears. Stacey even reported the abuse to her school, but no one helped.
Desperate Calls From Christy
When Stacey left to live with her mom, Christy stayed with Tom. She also dropped out of school and moved around between her father, mom, and relatives. Christy had been physically abused by her father, but it was never sexual like Stacey’s experiences.
Christy and Stacey talked on the phone often, and her calls began to sound increasingly desperate. Stacey worried about her sister’s safety and returned home when Christy admitted that Tom had sexually assaulted her. Stacey wanted to protect her sister from their father.
Things Escalated to Murder
When Stacey moved home, she said Tom forced himself on her again. She started thinking about what it would be like if he were gone. She reportedly started talking to friends about hiring someone to kill him and how to make it look like a burglary.
She fraudulently used his credit card and cashed checks in Tom’s name. The day before the murder, Stacey, Christy, and some friends went to dinner and the fair. When they snuck into the house to get their dog, Stacey saw the rifle in the basement and decided to kill Tom.
She Thought It Was the Only Way
Around 4:30 in the morning, Tom was passed out drunk on the sofa. Stacey walked upstairs with the gun and fired. She hit him in the shoulder, and he woke up unaware that he had been shot. Tom asked Stacey to call for help, so she went to look for a phone.
She thought, “He doesn’t deserve to live,” so she went back and shot him in the head. Stacey was so angry at her father. She left the house with the gun and stayed at a motel with Christy. The next day she asked a friend for help.
After killing her dad, Stacey had a friend dispose of the murder weapon while she called the police. She pretended that she had found him dead when she came home. It didn’t take long for Stacey to confess to the police.
Lt. Tom Schulte was the first to interview Stacey, and she told him about the years of abuse that led to the murder. She walked him through the crime scene during her confession, and the last thing he told her was, “I’ll be there for you.”
The Prosecution Had a Mission
During Stacey’s trial, the prosecution argued that she only killed Tom for the money, and there was no evidence that she had ever been assaulted. They were hungry to convict Stacey of first-degree murder and refused to believe she had been pushed to the edge after years of sexual assault.
St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch thought Stacey was a manipulative liar. He said Tom was a bad father, but he never raped his daughter because he didn’t want to give Stacey any credit that she suffered during her childhood. All McCulloch cared about was a conviction.
They Skipped Specific People for Testimonies
With a strong agenda to put Stacey in prison for the rest of her life, McCulloch didn’t ask Schulte to testify during the trial. Despite working in child sex crimes and being the first person to question Stacey, Schulte said he didn’t fit the prosecutor’s focus.
For years, Stacey was angry with Schulte for not testifying on her behalf. She didn’t know that he was never asked to be a witness. He told her he would be there for her, but Stacey felt abandoned by the one person who wanted to help.
The Jury’s Dilemma
The jury heard from both Stacey and her babysitter to whom she confided about the sexual abuse. However, unlike Texas, where Donna’s trial took place, Missouri didn’t have a law to cover battered children. Therefore, the self-defense argument was not valid because she wasn’t in immediate danger during the murder.
Even though Stacey killed her father because she feared the abuse would continue, the prosecution said she knew what she did was wrong and was in control of her actions. The judge refused to instruct the jury on self-defense, so it was out of their control.
Not So Lucky
Unlike Donna, Stacey’s experiences as a child were not validated. Instead, she was seen as a cold-blooded murderer. After a one-week trial, the jury voted to convict Stacey of murder in the first degree, which came with a life sentence and no chance of parole.
McCulloch saw it as a win and said the verdict was appropriate. He thought she deserved to be in prison for the rest of her life. Christy also received jail time for conspiring to commit murder. Even though he was killed, Tom won because no one believed the girls.
Trying to Appeal
Immediately after Stacey’s trial, her lawyers began petitioning to appeal her sentence. The Missouri Court of Appeals stated, “It is deeply troubling that the jury was not completely informed of the scope of the abuse Lannert suffered.” They believed Stacey wasn’t the original aggressor.
Even the jury members were upset that all the facts weren’t presented at the trial. Unfortunately, Stacey’s 2003 appeal failed because the use of self-defense is only valid if there is imminent danger. Tom was passed out drunk, so he couldn’t harm her.
Exhausting Her Options
During Stacey’s appeals, she argued that the errors in her trial violated the 14th amendment by denying her a fair trial. The jury missed a large part of her background, which led to a wrongful conviction. Year after year, Stacey tried to fight her sentence.
She ran out of options, so Stacey’s lawyers filed a clemency petition through Governor Matt Blunt. He was her last hope to be a free woman because there were no more appeal options left. If he didn’t help her, she would stay in prison for life.
A Taste of Freedom
Stacey was a model prisoner during her incarceration. She helped train service dogs and worked with other inmates who were victims of child abuse. After 18 years behind bars, Governor Blunt accepted her clemency petition. In March 2009, she became a free woman.
She reunited with her mom and sister and continued volunteering. Stacey also met with Schulte because she found out that he did everything to try and win her freedom. McCulloch thought it was wrong to let her go, but no one agreed with him.
Making Herself Better
Once Stacey left prison, she wanted to make everyone who believed in her proud. She started Healing Sisters, a resource website and non-profit agency to end sexual abuse in America. Stacey wanted there to be a community for other people like her.
When Blunt commuted her sentence, he told her to make a difference with her second chance at life, and she has done just that. During her lifetime, she hopes to eradicate sexual abuse. Although it’s a lofty goal, Stacey understands that children should have a safer world.
They Were Treated So Differently
Although Stacey and Donna’s cases were similar and happened during the same period, the two women were treated like polar opposites in the legal system. They both shared their story of years of abuse that took place behind closed doors, but the states treated them differently.
Texas listened to Donna’s story and understood what drove her to kill her father. However, in Missouri, the evidence of abuse against Stacey was largely kept a secret from the jury. Stacey wouldn’t have spent time in jail if they had been treated the same.