For 35 years, Judy Henderson spent countless hours on a prison phone wishing she could hold her children. After a governor’s pardon set her free, she knew she couldn’t just forget about other moms like her.
Henderson, now 69, was convicted of capital murder for the death of a Springfield, Missouri, jeweler in 1982 and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for 50 years, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections. She and her boyfriend had planned to rob the jeweler, but the robbery turned deadly when the man refused to give them a ring and other valuables. Henderson’s boyfriend fired a gun several times, killing the jeweler and injuring her, court records show.
Both were charged with murder, but only Henderson was found guilty. At the time, her son, Chip, was 3 and her daughter, Angel, was 12.
She was forced to trade the life she had with her children — driving Angel to tap dancing classes, afternoons baking brownies — for phone calls and visits to the Chillicothe Correctional Center, about 75 miles northeast of Kansas City.
Despite the distance, Henderson remained close to Angel by teaching her from afar how to cook sweet potatoes, supporting her through breakups and helping her pick careers after college.
Mother’s Day was always particularly tough. Henderson welcomed holiday visits from Angel, who planned different meals each year. Sometimes Angel would bring a homemade meal, other times she’d buy prepared food.
“She would always visit on Mother’s Day,” Henderson said. “And when my mother was alive (they’d) come together along with most of my siblings.”
But Henderson had virtually no contact with Chip. Her ex-husband wouldn’t allow the boy to visit or even talk over the phone with her until he turned 16.
“When I walked into the visiting room, I didn’t even recognize him,” she said. “We both starting crying. It was a moment that I would never forget.”
As the years passed and her children grew older, she also got to meet her three grandchildren — albeit from behind bars.
“It was very joyful and it was heartbreaking that I couldn’t be with my daughter when they were born, and to walk her through the pregnancy in person,” Henderson said.
In 2017, then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens commuted Henderson’s sentence and later pardoned her on his last day in office, a spokeswoman with the state’s department of corrections said. In his decision, Greitens said Henderson’s role in the robbery and murder was minor, according to a statement from the governor’s office.
Since her release, Henderson has traveled with her family to the Bahamas, gone shopping with her daughter and finally celebrated her first Mother’s Day as a free woman.
At her daughter’s home, they grilled pork chops, chicken and hot dogs on the sundeck and played yard games, and she had water balloon fights with her youngest granddaughter.
“I just felt so much love that day. I loved looking at my children, my grandchildren and being able to be here with them,” she said. “It was the best Mother’s Day.”
It’s a feeling Henderson won’t soon take for granted.
She can’t turn her back on other moms
As much as Henderson enjoys her new life far away from prison, she wants to help other mothers who are still locked up, separated from their children and unable to celebrate a proper Mother’s Day.
“I cannot turn my back on them. I just saw so many cases and so much injustice that these women should not be there,” Henderson said.
Prior to her release, she spent many hours assisting women as they filled their clemency applications and worked with legislators drafting a bill that would grant parole to some incarcerated elderly individuals.
“She was in prison not only trying to get home to her own children but she was inside trying to help a lot of women,” said Andrea James, founder and executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.
In the past few months, Henderson has taken numerous two and a half-hour road trips to the Missouri State Capitol to appear at hearings and meet with legislators to push the proposed bill. If approved, the bill would allow individuals over 65 who are sentenced to life without parole for a minimum of 50 years to receive a parole hearing after 30 years.
Henderson said many of her former fellow inmates can benefit from the bill.
She has been balancing her job as an administrative assistant for Catholic Charities with events at churches, law schools and charities where she speaks about the clemency process.
And earlier this week, she guided the family of a friend serving more than a decade in prison in preparing for the woman’s release. She talked them through the process, the expectations her friend could have and helped them buy toiletries and a walker.
“It’s been so rewarding to know that I can help those women in prison who have children, giving them things that they are going to need when they come home and even prepare their families for when they come home,” Henderson said.
For her second Mother’s Day since her release, Henderson just wants to eat hot dogs and play with her grandchildren in the backyard. It’s simple, she says, but it’s something that many incarcerated mothers can only dream of.
“I would probably take my last breath trying to help women come home from prison,” she said.