Articles on Women Who Have Been Granted Clemency
Copyright 1998 Chicago Tribune Company, Chicago Tribune
January 9, 1998 Friday, NORTH SPORTS FINAL EDITION
SECTION: COMMENTARY; Pg. 24; ZONE: N; Voice of the people (letter).
LENGTH: 408 words
HEADLINE: BATTERED WOMEN DESERVE CLEMENCY
BYLINE: Margaret Byrne, Director, Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women.
At 8:04 a.m. on Christmas Eve, Diane Fay Hirtzig walked out of the Dixon Correctional Center in western Illinois, a free woman after serving five years in prison.
Gov. Jim Edgar granted her clemency petition, as he has done in at least seven other cases of battered women who fought back against their abuser and were given long prison sentences.
Hirtzig had been convicted of hiring an undercover agent to kill her husband in a desperate effort to end a decade of constant violence against her and her six children.
What makes Hirtzig's case compelling is that her now-former husband, Edward Hirtzig, contacted the Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women two years ago and asked us to file a clemency petition for Diane.
Edward Hirtzig told us he never believed Diane would hurt him. He gave us an affidavit in which he admits numerous violent attacks on Diane, including choking her to unconsciousness, beating her with his fists and repeatedly threatening to kill her, once with a knife.
He says, " I know that I made her very afraid of me. I also know this was the only reason she committed the crime she's in prison for. She felt she was protecting herself and her kids."
Since 1993, the Clemency Project has represented 35 incarcerated women. Diane Hirtzig is the sixth to have her sentence reduced through clemency petitions written by volunteer lawyers and law students. Her petition was written by Ines Monte and Eric Wigginton, who attend the Law School of the University of Chicago.
When Hirtzig packed her few belongings and walked out of prison, she left behind dozens of women whose cases are also worthy of clemency. Women whose lawyers failed to investigate or present evidence of the impact of domestic violence. Women whose trial judges failed to consider adequately the mitigating factor of the abuse. And women like Diane Hirtzig, who never should have been charged in the first place.
Copyright 1993 U.P.I.
March 10, 1993, Wednesday, BC cycle
SECTION: Domestic News
LENGTH: 467 words
HEADLINE: Clemency granted for battered woman
BYLINE: BY AL SCHOCH
DATELINE: TALLAHASSE, Fla.
In a landmark decision for battered women in Florida, the Cabinet voted 5-2 Wednesday to grant clemency to an Orlando woman imprisoned for killing her husband who she said beat and sexually abused her.
Kimberly Soubiell, 27, had her sentence commuted to time served. Gov. Lawton Chiles said the Cabinet, acting as the Florida Clemency Board, also recommended a 15-year term of probation.
"Our decision is not a justification for homicide," Chiles said. "We certainly don't condone crimes of homicide, just as we do not condone crimes of domestic violence. She has served five years."
Attorney General Bob Butterworth and Secretary of State Jim Smith voted against clemency.
"It's our belief that she poses no danger to society," Chiles said.
Soubielle is the first person granted clemency under a new state program to review murder convictions of women who may have suffered from "battered women's syndrome" when they killed their abusers.
"I'm very excited today, I'm even more excited for Kimberly," said Candice Slaughter, director of the Florida Women in Prison Committee of the Florida Commission on Domestic Violence.
"I was disappointed because she remains on probation. But, however it turns out, the bottom line is she's going home," Slaughter said.
Slaughter said three other women who claim to have killed an abusive mate or boyfriend are expected to have their cases heard by the Clemency Board in June.
The Women in Prison Committee first brought Soubielle's case to the governor's attention.
Soubielle was convicted of second-degree murder for killing her husband, Pierre, at the Seminole County home on March 14, 1987. She was sent to prison in 1988.
At her clemency hearing in December, Soubielle's attorney said she shot her husband in self-defense while trying to flee with her daughter.
The attorney said Soubiell's husband treated he like a "lifelong prisoner and sex slave" during their 3 years of marriage.
State prosecutor Stephen Plotnick said there was no evidence of abuse and argued that freeing Soubielle would set a dangerous precedent giving people who claim to be battered "carte blanche" to kill their spouse.
In December 1991 the governor and Cabinet created review panels for women convicted of killing people they say abused them.
The panel that reviewed Soubielle's case determined she suffered from battered spouse syndrome bu the Florida Parole Commission rejected the findings.
The commission said there was no factual confirmation Soubielle was battered but the Cabinet decided to grant her clemency.
A dozen prison inmates have applied for special clemency consideration for battered spouses, according to the Office of Executive Clemency in Tallahassee.
December 4, 1996, Wednesday, BC cycle
SECTION: Domestic News
LENGTH: 389 words
HEADLINE: Husband-killer pardoned in N.H.
DATELINE: CONCORD, N.H., Dec. 4
New Hampshire's Governor and Council Wednesday conditionally pardoned a 33-year-old woman who has been in prison for 10 years for killing her abusive husband while he slept. June Briands' petition for "understanding and mercy" because she had been physically and sexually abused by her husband had been supported by several women's groups, political and religious leaders. "Had I not been so physically, sexually and emotionally tormented by him, this tragedy would never have happened," Briand wrote in her petition, heard by Gov. Stephen Merrill and the Council in September. Merrill and the Council specifically granted Briand a "conditional pardon" that means she remains in the women's prison in Goffstwon until April 1997, and then placed on work release while remaining in prison through April 8, 1998. She will be on probation for 18 years and then parole for the rest of her life. Merrill, calling the decision "probably the toughest decision a governor and council has ever had to make," said "There is clear evidence that June Briand's state of mind, as a battered wife, caused her to shoot her husband." "We unanimously agree, " Merrill said, "that June Briand presently bears little resemblance to the tormented perpetrator of the terrible act in question." He said it "amounted to additional prison time to decry the violent act on her part while acknowledging the circumstances created by domestic violence and the unfortunate actions which battered women feel they must make out of desperation of despondency." Briand said she had been punished enough for shooting James "Jimmy" Briand four times, in what her supporters said was a marriage where she suffered repeated beatings, verbal and sexual abuse. Briand pleaded guilty February 1987 to second degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. She would not have been eligible for parole until the year 2002. The state's attorney general and the victim's family vehemently opposed any pardon for Briand. Briand is the third woman in New Hampshire pardoned for killing her husband because of abuse. Since 1978, according to the National Council for the Defense of Battered Women in Philadelphia, 103 other women in 23 states have received clemency under similar circumstances.
Copyright 1984 U.P.I
April 30, 1984, Monday, AM cycle
SECTION: Domestic News
LENGTH: 273 words
HEADLINE: Woman who killed husband released from prison
DATELINE: NASHVILLE, Tenn.
A cancer-stricken woman who claims she killed her husband to end 27 years of abuse, walked sobbing from prison under executive clemency Monday and vowed to crusade for battered women.
"We've all paid a terrible price. So many people have and we want to stop it," said Kaghryn Louise England, 43, who served 16 months of a life sentence at the Tennessee State Prison for Women.
During her trial, Mrs. England admitted she shot to death her husband in 1982 but claimed he abused her repeatedly during their 27-year marriage.
Gov. Lamar Alexander commuted her life sentence April 12 but rejected her battered-wife defense.
"Mrs. England is being granted clemency because, and only because, she is seriously ill," the governor said.
"Look, no handcuffs," said Mrs. England as she left prison for a tearful reunion with her three children and grandson.
Mrs. England, who has breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy, said she plans to staff hotlines at the Shelter for Battered Women in Nashville.
"We aren't trying to make it lawful for a woman to kill her husband or lover," said Mrs. England, her eyes filled with tears and her voice wavering. "We just want to stop it (abuse) before it reaches that stage."
"I'm leaving a lot of dear friends behind," she said as other women inmates waved good-bye. "I'm a little nervous to go on the outside but I'm so glad to see my children."
Mrs. England shot her husband with a deer rifle while he slept and waited in the house until he bled to death.
In her trial, she claimed that her husband routinely abused her and took out his rage on the children as well.
Copyright 1991 U.P.I.
February 20, 1991, Wednesday, BC cycle
SECTION: Domestic News
LENGTH: 387 words
HEADLINE: Governor commutes women inmates' sentences
DATELINE: ANNAPOLIS, Md.
Gov. William Donal Schaefer, saying "it's the right thing to do," commuted the sentences of eight women imprisoned for assaulting or killing abusive husbands and boyfriends.
One of the women whose sentences Schaefer commuted was convicted of first-degree murder, five for second-degree murder and the others for battery or voluntary manslaughter.
Schaefer visited the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup in January at the request of Rep. Constance Morella, R-Md., met with five women who represented a coalition of abuse victims and asked state officials to review their sentences.
The review by Bishop Robinson, Public Safety and Correctional Services secretary, and member of the Maryland Parole Commission led to a recommendation for clemency for the eight, and an updated parole hearing for a ninth.
"We think, after a thorough review of their cases, it's the right thing to do," Schaefer said during a Tuesday news conference when he announced the commutations. "They served enough time."
The imprisoned women's experiences were brought to Schaefer's attention by a group of lawyers from the House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for battered women, and the Public Justice Center, a Baltimore legal services group.
Schaefer says he wants the sentence of the ninth woman, Carolyn Wallace of Baltimore County, and the sentences being served by the remaining three women to be reviewed again by Robinson and the Parole Commission.
"I think, as a result of recommendations by the House of Ruth, something will be done," the governor said.
The eight women, who were serving sentences ranging from 10 months to 40 years, will be released this week, said Mary Ann Saar, a Schaefer aide. Most of the women were convicted of murdering their abusive lovers.
Once released, the eight will remain on parole for the balance of their sentences, officials said. Schaefer aides said the circumstances of the commutation are a first for Maryland, and parallel a decision by former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste to release 25 women inmates in December.
Schaefer was accompanied at his news conference by Miss America Marjorie Vincent--who has made the issue of spousal abuse the focus of her yearlong reign--also announced a variety of initiatives aimed at domestic violence.
Copyright 1993 The Time Inc. Magazine Company
January 18, 1993, U.S. Edition
SECTION: COVER STORY;Pg. 38
LENGTH: 5618 words
HEADLINE: 'Til Death Do Us Part; When a woman kills an abusive partner, is it an act of revenge or of self defense? A growing clemency movement argues for a new legal standard.
BYLINE: BY NANCY GIBBS:
THE LAW HAS ALWAYS MADE ROOM FOR KILLER. SOLDIERS KILL THE nation's enemies, executioners kill it's killers, police officers under fire may fire back. Even a murder is measured in degrees, depending on the kind of the criminal and the character of the crimes. And sometime this spring, in a triumph of pity over punishment, the law may just find room for Rita Collins.
"They all cried, didn't they? But not me," she starts out, to distinguish herself from her fellow inmates in a Florida prison, who also have stories to tell. "No one will help me. No one will write about me. I don't have a dirty story. I wasn't abused as a child. I was a respectable government employee, employed by the Navy in a high position in Washington."
Her husband John was a military recruiter, a solid man who had a way with words. "He said I was old, fat, crazy and had no friends that were real friends. He said I needed him and he would take care of me." She says his care included threats with a knife, punches, a kick to the stomach that caused a hemorrhage. Navy doctors treated her for injuries to her neck and arm. "He'd slam me up against doors. He gave me black eye, bruises. Winter and summer, I'd go to work like a Puritan, with long sleeves. Afterward he's soothe me, and I'd think, "He's a good man. What did I do wrong?
The bravado dissolves, and she starts to cry.
"I was envied by other wives. I felt ashamed because I didn't appreciate him." After each beating comes apologies and offerings, gifts, a trip. "It's like blackmail. You think it's going to stop, but it doesn't." Collins never told anyone--not her friends in the church choir, not even a son by her first marriages. "I should have, but it was the humiliation of it all. I'm a professional woman. I didn't want people to think I was crazy." But some of them knew anyway; they had seen the bruises, the black eye behind the dark glasses.
She tried to get out. She filed for divorce, got a restraining order, filed an assault-and-battery charge against him, forced him from the house they had bought with a large chunk of her money when they retired to Florida. But still, she says, he came, night after night, banging on windows and doors, trying to break the locks.
It wasn't her idea to buy a weapon. "The police did all they could, but they had no control. They felt sorry for me. They told me to get a gun." She still doesn't remember firing it. She says she remember her husband's face, the glassy eyes, a knife in his hands. "To this day, I don't remember pulling the trigger."
The jury couldn't figure it out either. At Collins' first trial, for first-degree murder, her friends, a minister, her doctors and several experts testified about her character and the violence she had suffered. The prosecution played tapes of her threatening her husband over the phone and portrayed her as a bitter, unstable woman who had bought a gun, lured him to the house and murdered him out of jealousy and anger over the divorce. That trial ended with a hung jury. At her second, nine men and three women debated just two hours before finding her guilty of the lesser charge, second-degree murder. Collins' appeals were denied, and the parole board last year recommended against clemency. Orlando prosecutor Dorothy Sedgwick is certain that justice was done. "Rita Collins is a classic example of how a woman can decide to kill her husband and use the battered woman's syndrome as a fake defense," she says. "She lured him to his death. He was trying to escape her." Collins says her lawyers to everything: the $125,000 three-bedroom house with a pool, $98,000 in cash. "I've worked since I was 15, and i have nothing," she says. "The Bible says, 'Thou shalt not kill,' and everybody figures if you're in here, you're guilty. But I'm not a criminal. Nobody cares if I die in here, but if I live, I tell you one thing: I'm not going to keep quiet."
If in the next round of clemency hearings on March 10, Governor Lawton Chiles grants Collins or any other battered woman clemency., Florida will join 26 other states in a national movement to take another look at the cases of abuse victims who kill their abusers. Just before Christmas, Missouri's conservative Republican Governor John Ashcroft commuted the life sentences of two women who claimed they had killed their husbands in self-defense. After 20 years of trying, these women have made a Darwinian claim for mercy: Victims of perpetual violence should be forgiven if they turn violent themselves.
More American women--rich and poor alike-- are injured by the men in their life than by car accidents, muggings and rape combined. Advocated and experts liken the effect over time to a slow-acting poison. "Most battered women aren't killing to protect themselves from being killed that very moment," observes Charles Ewing, a law professor at SUNY Buffalo. "What they're protecting themselves from is slow but certain destruction, psychologically and physically. There's no place in the law for that."
As the clemency movement grows, it challenges a legal system that does not always distinguish between a crime and a tragedy. what special claims should victims of fate, poverty, violence, addiction be able to make upon the sympathies of juries and the boundaries of the law? In cases of domestic assaults, some women who suffered terrible abuse resorted to terrible means to escape it. Now the juries, and ultimately the society they speck for, have to find some way to express outrage at the brutality that women and children face every day, without accepting murder as a reasonable response to it.
But until America finds a better way to keep people safe in their own homes or offers them some means of surviving if they flee, it will be hard to answer the defendants who ask their judges, "What choice did I really have?"
HOME IS WHERE THE HURT IS
Last year the A.M.A., backed by the Surgeon General, declared that violent men constitute a major threat to women's health. The National League of Cities estimates that as many as half of all women will experience violence at some time in their marriage. Between 22% and 35% of all visits by females to emergency rooms are for injuries from domestic assaults. Though some studies have found that women are just as likely to start a fight as men, others indicate they are six times as likely to be seriously injured in one. Especially grotesque is the brutality reserved for pregnant women: the March of Dimes has concluded that the battering of women during pregnancy causes more birth defects than all the diseases put together for which children are usually immunized. Anywhere from one-third to as many as half of all female murder victims are killed by their spouses or lovers, compared with 4% of male victims.
"Male violence against women is at least as old an institution as marriage," says clinical psychologist Gus Kaufman Jr., co-founder of Men Stopping Violence, and Atlanta clinic established to help men face their battering problems. So long as a woman was considered her husband's legal property, police and the courts were unable to prevent--and unwilling to punish--domestic assaults. Notes N.Y.U. law professor Holly Maguigan: "We talk about the notion of the rule of thumb, forgetting that it had to do with the restriction on a man's right to use a weapon against his wife: he couldn't us a rod that was larger than his thumb." In 1874 North Carolina became one of the first states to limit a man's right to beat his wife, but lawmakers noted that unless he beat her nearly to death "it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze and leave the parties to forget and forgive."
Out of that old reluctance grew the modern double standard. Until the first wave of legal reform in the 1970s, an aggravated assault against a stranger was a felony, but assaulting a spouse was considered a misdemeanor, which rarely landed the attacker in court, much less in jail. That distinction, which still exists in most states, does not reflect the danger involved: a study by the Boston Bar Association found that the domestic attacks were at least as dangerous as 90% of felony assaults. "Police seldom arrest, even when there are injuries serious enough to require hospitalization of the victim," declared the Florida Supreme Court in a 1990 gender-bias study, which also noted the tendency of prosecutors to drop domestic-violence cases.
Police have always hated answering complaints about domestic disputes. Experts acknowledge that such situations are often particularly dangerous, but suspect that there are other reasons for holding back. "This issues pushes buttons, summons up personal emotion, that almost no other issue does for police and judges," says Linda Osmundson, who co-chairs a battered wives' task force for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Domestic violence is not seen as a crime. A man's home is still his castle. THere is a system that really believes that women should be passive in every circumstance." And it persists despite a 20-year effort by advocates to transform attitudes toward domestic violence.
While most of the effort has been directed at helping women survive, and escape, abusive homes, much of the publicity has fallen on those rare cases when women resort to violence themselves. Researcher and author Angela Browne points out that a woman is much more likely to be killed by her partner than to kill him. In 1991, when some 4 million women were beaten and 1,320 murdered in domestic attacks, 622 women killed their husbands or boyfriends. Yet the women have become the lightning rods for debate, since their circumstances, and their response, were most extreme.
WHAT CHOICE DID SHE HAVE?
"There is an appropriate means to deal with one's marital problems--legal recourse. Not a .357 Magnum," argues former Florida prosecutor Bill Catto. "If you choose to use a gun to end a problem, then you must suffer the consequences of your act." Defense lawyers call it legitimate self-protection when a victim of abuse fights back--even if she shoots her husband in his sleep. Prosecutors call it an act of vengeance, and in the past, juries have usually agreed and sent the killer to jail. Michael Dowd, director of the pace University Battered Women's Justice Center, has found that the average sentence for a woman who kills her mate is 15 to 20 years; for a man, 2 to 6.
The punishment is not surprising, since many judges insist that evidence of past abuse, even if it went on for years, is not relevant in court unless it occurred around the time of the killing. It is not the dead husband who is on trial, they note, but the wife who pulled the trigger. "Frankly, I feel changing the law would be authorizing preventive murder," argued Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lillian Stevens in the Los Angeles Times. "The only thing that really matters is, was there an immediate danger? There can't be an old grievance." And even if a woman is allowed to testify about past violence, the jury may still condemn her response to it. If he was really so savage, the prosecutor typically asks, why didn't she leave, seek shelter, call the police, file a complaint?
"The question presumes she has good options," says Julie Blackman, a New Jersey-based social psychologist who has testified as an expert witness in abuse and murder cases. "Sometimes, they don't leave because they have young children and not other way to support them, or because they grow up in cultures that are so immersed in violence that they don't figure there's any place better to go, or because they can't get apartments." The shelter facilities around he country are uniformly inadequate: New York has about 1,300 beds for a state with 18 million people. In 1990 the Baltimore zoo spent twice as much money to care for animals as the state of Maryland spent on shelters for victims of domestic violence.
Last July, even as reports of violence continued to multiply, the National Domestic Violence Hotline was disconnected. The 800 number had received as many as 10,000 calls a month from across the country. Now, says Mary Ann Bohrer, founder of the New York City-based Council for Safe Families, "there is not number, no national resource, for people seeking information about domestic violence."
The other reason women don't flee is because, ironically , they are afraid for their life. Law-enforcement experts agree that running away greatly increases the danger a woman faces. Angered at the loss of power and control, violent men often try to track down their wives and threaten them, or their children, if they don't come home. James Cox III, an unemployed dishwasher in Jacksonville, Florida, was determined to find his ex-girlfriend, despite a court order to stay away from her. Two weeks ago, he forced her mother at gunpoint to tell him the location of the battered women's shelter where her daughter had fled, and stormed the building, firing a shotgun. Police shot him dead. "This case illustrates the extent to which men go to pursue their victims," said executive director Rita DeYoung. "It creates a catch-22 for all battered women. Some will choose to return to their abusers, thinking they can control their behavior."
"After the law turns you away, society closes its doors on you, and you find yourself trapped in a life with someone capable of homicide. What choice in the end was I given?" asks Shalunda Burt, 21, who is serving 17 years for shooting her boyfriend James Fairley two years ago in Bradenton, Florida. She was three months pregnant at the time. A week after she delivered their first baby, James raped her and ripped her stitches. Several times she tried to leave or get help. "I would have a bloody mouth and a swollen face. All the police would do is give me a card with a deputy's name on it and tell me it was a lovers'' quarrel.' The battered women's shelter was full. All they could offer was a counselor on the phone."
Two weeks before the shooting, the police arrested them both: him for aggravated assault because she was pregnant, her for assault with a deadly missile and violently resisting arrest. She had thrown a bottle at his truck. Her bail was $10,000; his was $3,000. He was back home before she was, so she sent the baby to stay with relatives while she tried to raise bail. The end came on a Christmas weekend. After a particularly vicious beating, he followed her to her aunt's house. When he came at her again, she shot him. "They say I'm a violent person, but I'm not. I didn't want revenge. I just wanted our." Facing 25 years, she was told by a female public defender to take a plea bargain and 17 years. "I wanted to fight. But she said I'd get life of the electric chair. I was in a no-win situation."
It is hard for juries to understand why women like Burt do not turn to the courts for orders of protection. But these are a makeshift shield at best, often violated and hard to enforce. Olympic skier Patricia Kastle had a restraining order when her former husband shot her. Lisa Bianco in Indiana remained terrified of her husband even after he was sent to jail for eight years. When prison officials granted Alan Matheney and eight-hour pass in March 1989, he drove directly to Bianco's home, broke in and beat her to death with the butt of a shotgun. Last March, Shirley Lowery, a grandmother of 11, was stabbed 19 times with a butcher knife by her former boyfriend in the hallway of the courthouse where she had gone to get an order of protection.
THE MIND OF THE VICTIM
Defense lawyers have a hard time explaining to juries the shame, isolation and emotional dependency that bind victims to their abusers. Many women are too proud to admit to their family or friends that their marriage is not working and blame themselves for its failure even as they cling to the faith that their violent lover will change. "People confuse the woman's love for the man with love of abuse," says Pace's Dowd. "It's not the same thing. Which of us hasn't been involved in a romantic relationship where people say this is no good for you?"
It was Denver psychologist Lenore Walker, writing in 1984, who coined the term battered-woman syndrome to explain the behavior of abuse victims. Her study discussed the cycle of violence in battering households: first a period of growing tension; then a violent explosion, often unleashed by drugs or alcohol; and finally a stage of remorse and kindness. A violent man, she argues, typically acts out of a powerful need for control--physical, emotional, even financial. He may keep his wife under close surveillance, isolating her from family and friends, forbidding her to work or calling constantly to check on her whereabouts. Woven into the scrutiny are insults and threats that in the end can destroy a woman's confidence and leave her feeling trapped between her fear of staying in a violent home--and her fear of fleeing it.
Many lawyers say it is virtually impossible to defend a battered woman without some expert testimony about the effect of that syndrome over time. Such testimony allows attorneys to stretch the rules governing self-defense, which were designed to deal with two men caught in a bar fight, not a woman caught in a violent relationship with a stronger man.
In a traditional case of self-defense, a jury is presented a "snapshot" of a crime: the mugger threatens a subway rider with a knife; the rider pulls a gun and shoots his attacker. It is up to the jurors to decide whither the danger was real and immediate and whether the response was reasonable. A woman who shoots her husband while he lunges at her with a knife should have little trouble claiming that she acted in self-defense. Yet lawyers still find jurors to be very uncomfortable with female violence under any circumstances, especially violence directed at a man she may have lived with for years.
Given that bias, it is even harder for a lawyer to call it self-defense when a woman shoots a sleeping husband. The danger was hardly immediate, prosecutors argue, nor was the lethal response reasonable. Evidence about battered-women syndrome may be the only way to persuade a jury to identify with a killer. "Battered women are extraordinarily sensitive to cues of danger, and that's how they survive," says Walker. "That is why many battered women kill, not during what looks like the middle of a fight, but when the man is more vulnerable or the violence is just beginning."
A classic self-defense plea also demands a fair fight. A person who is punched can punch back, but if he shoots, he runs the risk of being charged with murder or manslaughter. This leaves women and children, who are almost always smaller and weaker than their attackers, in a bind. THey often see no way to escape and assault without using a weapon and the element of surprise--arguing, in essence, that their best hope of self-defense was s pre-emptive strike. "Morally and legally a a woman should not be expected to wait until his hands are around her neck," argues Los Angeles defense attorney Leslie Abramsom. "Say a husband says, 'When I get up tomorrow morning, I'm going to beat the living daylights out of you.'" says Joshua Dressler, a law professor and Wayne State University who specializes in criminal procedures. "If you use the word imminent, the woman would have to wait until the next morning and, just as he's about to kill her, then use self-defense."
That argument, prosecutors retort, is an invitation to anarchy. If a woman has survived past beatings, what persuaded her that this time was different, that she had no choice but to kill or be killed? The real catalyst, they suggest, was not her fear but her fury. Prosecutors often turn a woman's history of abuse into a motive for murder. "What some clemency advocates are really saying is that the s.o.b. deserved to die and why should she be punished for what she did," argues Dressler. Unless the killing came in the midst of a violent attack, it amounts to a personal death-penalty sentence. "I find it very hard to say that killing the most rotten human being in the world when he's not currently threatening the individual is the right thing to do."
Those who oppose changes in the laws point out that many domestic disputes are much more complicated than the clemency movement would suggest. "We've got to stop perpetuating the myth that men are all vicious and that women are all Snow White," says sonny Burmeister, a divorced father of three children who, as president of the Georgia Council for Children's Rights in Marietta, lobbies for equal treatment of men involved in custody battles. He recently sheltered a husband whose wife had pulled a gun on him. When police were called, their response was "So?" Says Burmeister: "We perpetuate this macho, chauvinistic, paternalistic attitude for men. We are taught to be protective of the weaker sex. We encourage women to report domestic violence. We believe men are guilty. But women are just as guilty."
He charges that feminists are trying to write a customized set of laws. "If Mom gets mad and shoots Dad, we call is PMS and point out that he hit her six month ago," he complains. "If Dad gets mad and shoots Mom, we call it domestic violence and charge him with murder. We paint men as violent and we paint women as victims, removing them from the social and legal consequences of their actions. I don't care how oppressed a woman is; should we condone premeditated murder?"
Only nine states have passes laws permitting expert testimony on battered-woman syndrome and spousal violence. In most cases it remains a matter of judicial discretion. One Pennsylvania judge ruled that testimony presented by a prosecutor show that the defendant had not been beaten badly enough to qualify as a battered woman and therefore could not have that standard applied to her case. President Bush signed legislation in October urging states to accept expert testimony in criminal cases involving battered women. The law calls for development of training materials to assist defendants and their attorneys in using such testimony in appropriate cases.
Judge Lillian Stevens instructed the jury on the rules governing self-defense at the 1983 trial of Brenda Clubine, who claimed that she killed her police-informant husband because he was going to kill her. Clubine says that during an 11-year relationship, she was kicked, punched, stabbed, had the skin on one side of her face torn off, a lung pierced, ribs broken. She had a judge's order protecting her and had pressed charges to have her husband arrested for felony battery. But six weeks later, she agreed to meet him in a motel, where Clubine alleges that she felt he life was in danger and hit him over the head with a wine bottle, causing a fatal brain hemorrhage. "I didn't mean to kill him," she says. "He had hit me several times. Something inside me snapped; I grabbed the bottle and swung." The jury found Clubine guilty of second-degree manslaughter, and Judge Stevens sentenced her 15 years to life. She says Clubine drugged her husband into lethargy before fatally hitting him. "It seemed to me [the beatings] were some time ago," Stevens told the Los Angeles Times. Furthermore, she added, "there was evidence that a lot of it was mutual."
It is interesting that within the legal community there are eloquent opponents of battered-woman syndrome--on feminist grounds--who dislike the label's implication that all battered women are helpless victims of some shared mental disability that prevents them from acting rationally. Social liberals, says N.Y.U.'s Maguigan, typically explain male violence in terms of social or economic pressures. Gemale violence, on the other hand, is examined in psychological terms. "They look to what's wrong with her and reinforce a notion that women who use violence are, per se, unreasonable, that something must be wrong with her because she's not acting like a good woman, in the way that women are socialized to behave."
Researcher Charles Ewing compared a group of 100 battered women who had killed their partners with 100 battered women who hadn't taken that fatal step. Women who resorted to violence were usually those who were most isolated, socially and economically; they had been the most badly beaten, their children had been abused, and their husbands were drug and alcohol abuser. That is, the common bond was circumstantial, not psychological. "They're not pathological," says social psychologist Blackman. "They don't have personality disorders. They're just beat up worse."
Women who have endured years of beatings without fighting back may reach the breaking point once the abuse spreads to others they love. Arlene Caris is serving a 25-year sentence in New York for killing her husband. He had tormented her for yours, both physically and psychologically. Then she reportedly learned that he was sexually abusing her granddaughter. On the night she finally decided to leave him, he came at her in a rage. She took a rifle, shot him, wrapped him in bed sheets and then hid the body in the attic for five months.
Offering such women clemency, the advocates note, is not precisely the same as amnesty; the punishment is reduced, though the act is not excused. Clemency may be most appropriate in cases where all the circumstances of the crimes were not heard in court. The higher courts have certainly sent the message that justice is not uniform in domestic violence cases. One study found that 40% of women who appeal their murder convictions get the sentence thrown out. Compared with an 8.5% reversal rate for homicides as a whole. "I've worked on cases involving battered women who have talked only briefly to their lawyers in the courtroom for 15 or 20 minutes and then they take a plea and do 15 to life," recalls Blackman. "I see women who are Hispanic and don't speak English well, or women who are very quickly moved through the system, who take pleas and do substantial chunks of time, often without getting any real attention paid to the circumstances of their case."
The first mass release in the U.S. came at Christmas in 1990, when Ohio Governor Richard Celeste commuted the sentences of 27 battered women serving time for killing or assaulting male companions. His initiative was born of long-held convictions. As a legislator in the early '702, he and his wife helped open a women's center in Cleveland and held hearings on domestic violence. When he became lieutenant governor in 1974 and moved to Colombus, he and his wife rented out their home in Cleveland as emergency shelter for battered women. He and the parole board reviewed 107 cases, looking at evidence of past abuse, criminal record, adjustment to prison life and participation in post release programs before granting the clemencies. "The system of justice had not really worked on their cases," he says. "They had not had the opportunity for a fair trial because vitally important evidence affecting their circumstances and the terrible things done to them was not presented to the jury."
The impending reviews in other states have caused some prosecutors and judges to sound an alarm. They are worried that Governors' second-guessing the courts undermines the judicial system and invites manipulation by prisoners. "Anybody in the penitentiary, if they see a possible out, will be claiming, 'Oh, I was a battered woman,'" says Dallas assistant district attorney Norman Kinne. "They can't take every female who says she's a battered woman and say, 'Oh, we're sorry, we'll let you out.' If they're going to do it right, it's an exhaustive study."
Clemency critics point to one woman released in Maryland who soon afterward boasted about having committed the crimes. Especially controversial are women who have been granted clemency fro crimes that were undeniably premeditated. Delia Alaniz hired a contract killer to pretend to rob her home and murder her husband in the process. He had beaten her and their children for years, sexually abusing their 14-year-old daughter. The prosecutor from Skagit County, Washington, was sufficiently impressed by the evidence of abuse that he reduced the charge from first-degree murder and life imprisonment to second-degree manslaughter with a sentence of 10 to 14 years. In October 1989, Governor Booth Gardner granted her clemency. "Delia was driven to extremes. The situation was desperate, and she viewed it that way," says Skagit County public defender Robert Jones. "The harm to those kids having a mom in prison was to much considering the suffering they went through. As a state, we don't condone what she did, but we understand and have compassion."
THE ALTERNATIVES TO MURDER
There is always a risk that the debate over clemency will continue to obscure the missing debate over violence. "I grew up in a society that really tolerated a lot of injustice when it came to women," says Pace University's Dowd. "It was ingrained as a part of society. This isn't a woman's issue. It's a human-rights issue. Men should have as much to offer fighting sexism as they do racism because the reality is that it's our hands that strike the blows." The best way to keep battered women out of jail is to keep them from being battered in the first place.
In a sense, a society's priorities can be measured by whom it punishes. A survey of the population of a typical prison suggests that violent husbands and fathers are still not viewed as criminals. In New York State about half the inmates are drug offenders, the result of a decade-long War on Drugs that demanded mandatory sentences. A War on Violence would send the same message, that society genuinely abhors parents who beat children and spouses who batter each other, and is willing to punish the behavior rather than dismiss it.
Minnesota serves as a model for other states. In 1981 Duluth was the first U.S. city to institute mandatory arrests in domestic disputes. Since then about half the states have done the same, which means that even if a victim does not with to press charges, the police are obliged to make and arrest if they see evidence of abuse. Advocates in some Minnesota jurisdictions track cases from the first call to police through prosecution and sentencing, to try to spot where the system is failing. Prosecutors are increasingly reluctant to plea-bargain assault down to disorderly conduct. They have also found it helpful to use the arresting officer as complainant, so that their case does not depend on a frightened victim's testifying.
Better training of police officers, judges, emergency room personnel and other professionals is having an impact in many cities. "We used to train police to be counselors in domestic abuse cases," says Osmundson. "No longer. We teach them to make arrests." In Jacksonville, Florida, new procedures helped raise the arrest rate from 25% to 40%. "Arrests send a message to the woman that help is available and to men that abuse is not accepted," says shelter executive director DeYoung, who also serves as president of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Children too see that it's not accepted and are more likely to grow up not accepting abuse in the home."
Since 1990 at least 28 states have passed "stalking laws" that make it a crime to threaten, follow or harass someone. Congress this month may take up the Violence Against Women bill, which would increase penalties for federal sex crimes; provide $300 million to police, prosecutors and courts to combat violent crimes against women; and reinforce state domestic violence laws. Most women, of course, are not looking to put their partners in jail; they want the violence to stop.
A Minneapolis project was founded in 1979 at the prompting of women in shelters who said they wanted to go back to their partners if they would stop battering. Counselors have found that men resort to violence because they want to control their partners, and they know they can get away with it--unlike in other relationships. "A lot of people experience low impulse control, fear of abandonment, alcohol and drug addiction, all the characteristics of a batterer," says Ellen Pence, training coordinator for the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth. "However, the same guy is not beating up his boss."
Most men come to the program either by order of the courts or as a condition set by their partners. The counselors start with the assumption that battering is learned behavior. Eighty percent of the participants grew up in a home where they saw or were victims of physical, sexual or other abuse. Once imprinted with that model, they must be taught to recognize warning signs and redirect their anger. "We don't say, 'Never get angry,'" says Carol Arthur, the Minneapolis project's executive director. "Anger is a normal, healthy emotion. What we work with is a way to express it." Men describe to the group their most violent incident. One man told about throwing food in his wife's face at dinner and then beating her to the floor only to turn and see his two small children huddled terrified under the table. Arthur remembers his self-assessment at that moment: "My God, what must they be thinking about me? I didn't want to be like that."
If the police and the courts crack down on abuser, and programs exist to help change violent behavior, victims will be less likely to take--and less justified in taking--the law into their own hands. And once the cycle of violence winds down in this generation, it is less likely to poison the next. That would be a family value worth fighting for.