On Oct. 15, 2004, Mary Elizabeth Schipke entered the Oracle post office to buy a 47-cent stamped envelope. When she got frustrated with the clerk behind the counter, she told her: "God, I pray a bomb falls on your stupid, fucking head."
Almost a year later, Schipke was convicted of threatening a federal facility with weapons of mass destruction. Schipke describes what she told the clerk that day as an "imprecatory prayer"—basically, a simple curse—but that defense didn't keep her from serving a four-year prison sentence, with the last two years at Carswell, a women's federal medical prison outside of Fort Worth, Texas, that has been the subject of allegations about the questionable care of prisoners with physical and psychiatric conditions.
Although now free and on supervised release, Schipke, 51, continues to fight the federal government—this time, over a DNA sample forcibly removed from her in prison. After her release, prison officials realized that fingerprints needed to go along with the DNA sample were apparently taken in a sloppy manner. Now, the government wants a second DNA sample and a new set of fingerprints.
Schipke and her court-appointed attorney, Leslie Bowman, have taken her case to the U.S. Court of Appeals to keep the government from taking that sample—on the grounds of religious freedom. Schipke believes her DNA is connected to her soul and what she calls the Divine Maker.
"My DNA is completely unique, and it is sacred. How do I know what they'll do with my sacred DNA?" she asks.
Schipke wouldn't be in her current position if the government hadn't decided to prosecute the post-office case. Schipke says she wasn't much of a threat in 2004; she spent most of her time in a wheelchair and got by each month on disability assistance and food stamps. She says she suffers from fibromyalgia, chronic-pain syndrome and a chemical sensitivity disorder, among other illnesses.
Schipke says she often complained to the post-office staff about dangerous potholes in front of the building.
"They didn't like me much," Schipke recalls as she pulls out a transcript of the 911 phone call made by the clerk who reported the alleged bomb threat.
On the transcript, the clerk is noted as laughing while describing the incident to the 911 operator.
"I don't think you'd be laughing if you really thought I had a bomb, would you?" Schipke asks.
Schipke describes numerous incidents in prison as "torture"—including the forced retrieval of her DNA sample.
Federal facilities are required by the DNA Analysis Backlog Elimination Act of 2000 to obtain DNA samples from inmates convicted of "certain qualifying offenses." Those offenses were amended in the USA Patriot Act to include acts of terrorism or crimes of violence.
Schipke was first asked to allow prison staff to take a DNA sample in December 2007, but she refused. She refused again in February 2008, March 2008 and April 2008. Each refusal came with a loss of privileges. According to the law, if an inmate continues to refuse, the sample may be collected by force—and that's what happened.
Schipke's attorney obtained a DVD made by Carswell officials that shows guards dressed in SWAT gear preparing to enter Schipke's cell. Through a small window, the camera shows Schipke holding the leg rest from her wheelchair and swinging it in the air, as she yells that she will not allow them to take her DNA. The guards move in; one each takes an arm, a leg, her head and feet, and hold her down by pressing their knees against her body.
Medical staffers quickly take blood samples and leave; then another person arrives to take fingerprints. At full volume, you can hear Schipke telling the guards to let go, because she isn't against allowing them to fingerprint her. However, she isn't released until another staffer reaches over the guards' bodies to clumsily take the fingerprints.
According to the federal prosecutors' arguments filed with the 9th Circuit, the government has a "compelling interest in obtaining the defendant's DNA," because Schipke was convicted of a serious felony offense: threatening to use a weapon of mass destruction.
The Tucson Weekly called the prosecutor on record, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Granoff, for comment. Public information officer Sandy Raynor responded that no representative was able to comment on the case.
It's a charge Schipke should never have faced, says Bowman. Others agree; in May, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief stating that while Schipke is often rude and offensive, she is not a terrorist.
The brief states: "(S)uch is Mary Schipke's lot. She is quite unlikable. She is rude, offensive and willing to make outlandish statements either to draw attention to herself or to voice frustrations with societal norms causing her perpetual grief. But she is no terrorist. At least one clerk at the Oracle post office was familiar with her abrasive conduct. Pre-9/11, Ms. Schipke's outbursts likely would have won her a misdemeanor disorderly conduct prosecution. Post-9/11, she is a convicted terrorist who presumably has a timeshare in a B-52 bomber or perhaps connections to a radical terrorist cell, that, strategic considerations be damned, seeks to bomb the Oracle post office. This case represents a sad and absurd failure of prosecutorial discretion ... that should prove a canary in the proverbial coal mine."
However, prosecutorial discretion is not the focus of Schipke's current case. Bowman explained in an e-mail that a temporary emergency stay is in place preventing the court from allowing prison officials to collect the second DNA sample. Bowman and Schipke, however, want the case to go before the Court of Appeals. If the U.S. District Court denies the stay, and/or if Schipke loses her appeal, Bowman wrote that her client may choose another appeal—and she'll also have to seek another emergency stay.
"If she refuses, a petition could be filed to revoke her supervised release. That could result in her being taken back into custody. She could also be charged with a criminal offense," Bowman wrote.
Aside from this battle over her DNA, Schipke says she's fighting for her basic survival. Because of her felony conviction, she is no longer eligible for Section 8 housing and had to reapply for disability assistance.
"They took my whole world away from me," Schipke says.