For the past 16 years, Jamie and Gladys Scott have been locked away in prison in America's Deep South, serving double life sentences for a robbery in which no one was injured and their entire haul amounted to the grand total of just $11. Now they are to walk free. But there's a catch.
The sisters have been granted clemency by Haley Barbour, the Governor of Mississippi, on the condition that they begin life outside by going straight to hospital. There they must undergo an emergency operation which means that, in addition to sharing freedom, they will spend the rest of their natural lives sharing a pair of kidneys.
Gladys, 36, is fit, healthy, and therefore likely to be able to survive on just one of her two kidneys after the transplant surgery. She is also a perfect genetic "match" for Jamie, 38, whose daily dialysis is currently being administered behind bars, at an annual cost to the state of $200,000.
The order signed by Governor Barbour yesterday suspends their draconian prison sentences indefinitely on condition that the transplant operation is "scheduled with urgency". It says the women could be returned to prison if the surgery fails to take place as planned.
News of the clemency has delighted race-relations campaigners who have long claimed that the women should be freed regardless of their state of health. The fact the sisters are black played a role in the (white) judge's decision to impose such punitive punishments upon them, they allege.
"The presiding judge in the trial, Judge Marcus Gordon, has a history of racially biased rulings," said Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured people. "Even the prosecutor of the case" later became an advocate for the sisters, he added.
In 1993, when the original crime was committed, Gladys was just 19 and Jamie was 21. They were both fit and healthy and had no previous convictions. Yet under the terms of their double life sentences imposed by the elderly Judge Gordon, they would not have even been eligible for parole until 2014.
The Scotts had been accused of luring two men to a late-night ambush by driving them to a nightclub in Forest, North Mississippi where three different teenagers assaulted them, using a shotgun as a club. The men's wallets, containing the combined sum of $11, were then stolen.
At the subsequent trial, the sisters pleaded not guilty as accessories to the crime. But they ended up being convicted of armed robbery, by a largely white jury, and told they would each be required to serve two life terms. Meanwhile, their three male accomplices received lesser sentences and were released several years ago.
In prison, both women became known as model inmates, though the health of Jamie soon started to deteriorate. Their case was picked up by civil liberties campaigners, who believe it showcases the arbitrary and harsh nature of many sentences handed down by US courts against black defendants.
Although the sisters had hoped for a full pardon, as opposed to the suspension of their sentence, their attorney, Chokwe Lumumba, said they were nonetheless delighted at news of Governor Barbour's decision. They had been planning to undergo the kidney transplant operation anyway, regardless of whether the release had been ordered.
"I think it's a victory," said Lumumba. "I talked to Gladys and she's elated about the news. I'm sure Jamie is, too." It will take roughly a month for the decision to be fully rubber-stamped and for them to actually walk free, she added.
For Governor Barbour, who is in his second and final term, the decision nonetheless represents a political gamble. A Republican, who is a sporting bet for his party's Presidential nomination in 2012, he knows the move will most likely please undecided voters, but cost him support on the party's right wing.