Christie frees killer, leaving victim’s shocked family to wonder why
Three days before they were to be married, Lisa Pyatt grabbed a fish knife and fatally stabbed Kevin McGowan through his heart.
During Pyatt’s murder trial in 1993, McGowan’s family silently suffered as her attorney portrayed McGowan as a violent, abusive drunk who beat Pyatt.
But prosecutors never believed Pyatt was a battered woman who acted in self-defense. Neither did the Ocean County jury, which found her guilty of murder. A judge sentenced her to 40 years in prison.
Now, 25 years later, McGowan’s loved ones are reliving the pain.
Earlier this month, they learned from a news article that Gov. Chris Christie had granted Pyatt clemency, freeing her from prison five years before she would have been eligible for parole.
Christie, whose term ended as governor days after the clemency order, never explained his reasoning for the sentence commutation.
Although Christie did not pardon Pyatt – she remains guilty of murder and other charges — the clemency seems to give credence to Pyatt’s claim that she acted in self-defense despite evidence and testimony that indicated otherwise.
"As the family of the victim, we are puzzled as to how a woman that has exhausted all of her appeals over the years was given a commuted sentence by the outgoing governor,” McGowan’s brother, Frank, said in a statement that the family released on Friday.
“Christie has given a second chance to a hardened criminal and murderer. My brother will never be given a second chance, so why should she?”
How to get a pardon
Pyatt was one of 55 people who Christie granted pardons and sentence commutations during his two terms in office.
Clemency, a perk of governors and presidents that dates back to George Washington, can allow people who've turned their lives around to move on from their troubled past.
Most of Christie's pardons were for drug offenders, which dovetailed with his work to address the opioid addiction crisis. Christie also pardoned out-of-state residents who ran afoul of New Jersey's strict gun-carry laws, facing prison for owning guns they were legally allowed to have in their home states.
He also pardoned a white-collar crook whose family had donated thousands to Christie's campaigns.
But the Pyatt clemency might prove to be the most controversial and baffling.
McGowan’s outraged family is now raising questions about how a governor’s office should handle clemency and the role victims' families should play.
Although Pyatt’s attorney told the Asbury Park Press that a legal representative for Christie met with Pyatt in prison, Frank McGowan said the governor’s office never contacted his family to ask them for their input or even to let them know this was coming.
The clemency also was a surprise to the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and its victims’ advocacy office, McGowan said.
Almost two weeks after the clemency order, McGowan says nobody has had “the decency to contact us.”
Pyatt, now 50, was released from prison on Jan. 13. Her attorney, Mitchell Ansel, told the Asbury Park Press that she is now living with her son and daughter somewhere in Ocean County, where McGowan’s relatives still live.
“We have no idea if she is living in our neighborhood,” Frank McGowan said.
Ansel told the Press that he filed a petition for clemency with Christie’s office in 2011. The request cited the self-defense argument and improper representation during appeals. One of Pyatt’s appellate attorneys was later convicted of arranging the murder of a witness in a different case, while her other attorney was later disbarred for misconduct.
People seeking clemency on state charges have to apply to the Department of Corrections Pardon Clemency Unit, which then forwards the applications to the governor's office. The most compelling cases are referred to the governor’s deputy chief counsel, who reviews the cases and interviews the individuals before forwarding any recommendations to the governor.
Last year, Christie said he would consider “how the person’s lived their life since they committed the crimes, what was the nature of the crime they committed in the first place, what kind of letters and commendations of support they have in favor of the pardon.”
"It’s the most amazing authority you have as governor, because it’s you and you alone," he said. "It’s very broad, there’s not a whole lot of requirements on it, and you just get to get there, get a feel for it."
Frank McGowan said victims’ families should be consulted when a governor is considering clemency. Had Pyatt's case came before the Parole Board after serving 30 years, McGowan’s family would have been invited to provide an impact statement before the board deliberated.
McGowan said the way Christie’s office handled the clemency was “unethical," "callous, underhanded [and] without any regard for the victim’s family.”
“I wonder if the governor would have handled the commutation the same way if it was someone in his family?”
'Battered woman' or liar?
Pyatt stabbed McGowan on the evening of June 19, 1991, in their apartment on Arnold Avenue in Point Pleasant Beach. Pyatt’s 2-year-old son from a previous relationship was home at the time.
Her public defender argued that she suffered from battered-woman syndrome, a defense that the state Supreme Court had first allowed in a 1984 ruling.
Prosecutors, however, portrayed Pyatt as a violent, anti-social liar, according to newspaper coverage of the trial.
Investigators testified that Pyatt changed her story about what happened that evening seven times. She first told a homicide detective that a depressed McGowan had stabbed himself. She changed that to say she had accidentally stabbed him when he tried to hug her. Another version had them walking into each other while she held the knife.
A first-aid worker who responded to the scene testified that she saw Pyatt washing a knife and putting it away. The worker said Pyatt calmly asked her, “Is he dying?”
Pyatt’s attorney said she stabbed McGowan because he was choking her. She later had bruises on her neck and chin, which were not visible immediately after the stabbing. The prosecutor suggested that she inflicted the bruises on herself.
Her attorney argued that a classic symptom of battered-woman syndrome was to lie to protect the abuser, which explained why she told detectives that night that McGowan had never abused her and that she was the one who could beat him up. A month before the stabbing, police had been called to a domestic violence call involving the couple at a local bar, but Pyatt did not press charges.
Her parents testified that she had a history of dating older men who abused her. A former boyfriend testified that another boyfriend, not McGowan, had beat her.
But the prosecutor produced other witnesses who portrayed Pyatt as aggressive and a liar.
A woman who lived with Pyatt a year before the stabbing testified that Pyatt had called police to file a false report claiming that her boyfriend at the time had threatened her with a gun. The roommate testified that Pyatt laughed about it afterward.
A former neighbor of Pyatt testified that a year before the stabbing she had witnessed Pyatt arguing with her boyfriend at the time. She said she saw Pyatt pull off his jacket and “told him if she couldn’t have him, no one would and that she’d stab him in the heart.”
McGowan’s former boss testified that Pyatt had called him on the afternoon of the stabbing to find out where McGowan had been and whether he had been drinking. When he told her he had, she told him, “When he gets home, I’m going to kill him.”
McGowan’s mother testified that Pyatt called her from jail to ask about McGowan’s burial. McGowan’s mother said Pyatt laughed at her and said she would be “walking the streets in two weeks.”
While the prosecutor wanted the jury to hear this testimony to demonstrate how remorseless Pyatt was, the judge did not allow it at trial, according to an Asbury Park Press report about the hearing.
McGowan’s friends testified that he liked to get drunk, but he never turned violent. A blood test indicated that McGowan had a blood-alcohol content of 0.25 percent, which the medical examiner said was extremely high and would result in impairment. The prosecutor argued that the BAC was proof that McGowan was too drunk to have been able to attack Pyatt.
A forensic psychiatrist who testified for the defense said Pyatt suffered from battered-woman’s syndrome and borderline personality disorder. Under questioning by the prosecutor, however, the doctor acknowledged that Pyatt’s substance abuse, promiscuity and relationship troubles could indicate she had anti-social personality disorder, which would make her more likely to hurt others.
After her arrest in 1991, newspaper articles described Pyatt as being pregnant with McGowan’s child. Later news coverage of her trial makes no mention of that pregnancy. When she was sentenced in October 1993, her son was 4 years old and she had an infant daughter fathered by a man she had moved in with while she was out on bail awaiting trial.
At her sentencing, Pyatt said she “never meant to kill him.”
“I just wanted to protect me and my son. I understand I took a life, but I also loved that life as much as they did,” she was quoted as saying in published reports.
After Christie’s clemency order, former Ocean County Assistant Prosecutor William P. Cunningham, who tried the case, told the Asbury Park Press that Pyatt was a “phony.”
“What bothered me about this case was, she would disparage his reputation to save herself, and that’s wrong," the Press quoted him as saying.
That’s a sentiment McGowan’s family shares.
"I feel we need to strengthen the rights of victim’s families because the murder victim and the victim’s family has no rights or voice. When a sentence is commuted, facts and solely facts should be the only thing that would impact the decision to have the criminal stay incarcerated or be released,” Frank McGowan said.
“I don’t want any other family to have to endure what we have over the past few weeks."
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