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The Last Hope 

A new law gives one more chance at freedom to abused women sent to prison for killing their batterers

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002
Olivia Wang sits at a computer in her cramped office on McAllister Street, surrounded by five cardboard boxes. The boxes are nondescript, holding bulging folders of ordinary-looking legal documents. But to San Francisco attorney Wang, these papers are precious relics of California's vocal and optimistic clemency movement for battered women in the early 1990s.

Wang selects a thick file from a box at her feet and flips through it carefully, handling its pages and reading passages from it as if it were an antique, first-edition novel. Like the dozens of other files around her, the sheaf of legal documents presents the vivid, violent story of an abused woman who was sent to prison after killing her batterer. The file is her petition for clemency from the governor.

"Look at the thickness," Wang says, holding up a 2-inch-wide file. "And it probably just sat on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk. I wonder if it was ever read."

The boxes collected dust in storage for years, after the clemency battle largely failed. But three months ago, Wang hauled the boxes back to her office, partially in anticipation of a new law that will give these women one last grasp at freedom.

In the decade that has passed since they sought clemency, most of the original petitioners have remained in prison, with no legal options left. But the new state law that took effect earlier this month will give the estimated hundreds of California women in this situation one final legal tool. The law says that women prosecuted before 1992 -- when evidence of domestic violence became admissible in trial -- can submit writs of habeas corpus on the grounds of "battered women's syndrome."

The law is considered an exciting development among advocates for battered women. But Wang knows that winning freedom for her clients is not a sure thing -- a bitter lesson she learned from the clemency fight 10 years ago.

In the early 1990s, advocates for survivors of domestic violence formed the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison, with the hope of bringing public attention to what they saw as a grave injustice -- that women who had killed their batterers in self-defense were not allowed to mention their abuse in court. Some of those women were being thrown in prison for life.

The coalition was able to garner media coverage when it filed 34 clemency petitions with then-Gov. Pete Wilson, the only person with any power to change the terms of these women's sentences.

The women prisoners, some of whom had already been in prison for 10 years, beseeched the governor to consider their histories of domestic abuse and to commute or shorten their sentences.

The inmates' last hopes of freedom were asserted through the pages of their petitions -- in documentation of physical abuse, psychological evaluations, unblemished prison records, and letters from their mothers. Most attorneys who had worked on the cases were convinced that the women -- who had the most compelling stories the lawyers could find -- would be freed as a result.

Henrietta Margarita Briones was one of the original 34 petitioners. Briones had been convicted of second-degree murder for shooting her boyfriend to death in Southern California in January 1986.

In Briones' petition, which is among the files in Wang's office, she says she was beaten by her boyfriend, Larry Daniels, at least four times a week. Whenever she called the police, the officers would simply take Daniels to his mother's home only a few houses away. When he returned, he was livid, telling Briones that she would "pay" for what she had done. Then he would beat her with his fists or grab her by her shirt and slam her to the floor.

After about a year and a half, Briones tried to end the relationship. Daniels left the area for a while, returning in January 1986. When he discovered that Briones was dating someone else, Daniels became jealous, and began hitting Briones over the head with a glass bottle, threatening to kill her and her new boyfriend.

A few days after that incident, Daniels came to Briones' apartment again. He shoved his way in and hit her. He pulled out a pistol and told her he would come back later and kill her.

As Daniels left the apartment, Briones picked up a rifle that he had left behind long ago and followed him into the courtyard. According to the petition, "she wanted to show Daniels that she, too, had a weapon and to warn him not to return."

As Briones followed Daniels to his car, she called to him. Daniels swore back at her and began walking toward her. He pulled out his pistol and continued moving toward her. Briones lifted the rifle and pulled the trigger, shooting him in the chest -- a single shot through the heart.

After the shooting, Briones, who had no previous criminal history, went for help and waited until the police arrived. She admitted to the police that she had shot Daniels and was booked for murder.

Briones' petition asserts that she "did what any reasonable person fearing for their life would have done in a similar situation -- she protected herself."

Because Briones' case went to trial in 1986, before domestic violence could be used as evidence, she was not allowed to discuss her boyfriend's abusive behavior during her court trial; the jury only heard evidence related to the shooting itself, and she was handed a life sentence.

To this day, neither former Gov. Pete Wilson nor current Gov. Gray Davis has taken action on the petition, and Briones remains in the Correctional Institution for Women in Southern California.

The outcome of Briones' case is not unique. Collectively, the 34 clemency petitions haven't accomplished much over the years. Twenty-three women are still in prison. Three were granted clemency, but mostly on grounds unrelated to being a battered woman. Two were paroled. Two died in prison. Four women were released because they had served their time or had won a writ of habeas corpus not related to their abuse.

In hindsight, the effort was successful in bringing publicity to the issue, but the strategy was too one-sided, says Ken Thiesen, a San Francisco attorney and coalition member.

"Initially, the mistake of the coalition was that too much effort was put into persuading one individual -- the governor," he says. "What was bad was that some people got discouraged when the governor started turning people down or nothing happened."

Pete Wilson could not be reached for comment.

Though no action has been taken on Briones' clemency petition, she recently qualified for parole. Her release, however, must meet the approval of Gov. Davis, who might pose another barrier.

"The governor has indicated that he does not want to release people [from prison] who have killed," says Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles), who was also an early coalition member. "I believe that is a very strong hurdle for these women."

A Davis spokesperson, however, says the governor has "no predisposed position on parole and clemency."

It is too soon to say whether Briones will be paroled or not, but with the law that took effect earlier this month, women like her have one last hope. The law, pushed by Sen. Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach), says that battered women who killed in self-defense and who were imprisoned before 1992 can file a writ of habeas corpus. The writs would be submitted to the court where an inmate's original jury trial was held.

It is an important piece of legislation for women like Briones because the legal and social landscape has changed since her conviction. "With the advent of social science support and findings, there have been changes in legal instructions, urging juries to look within the domestic violence context at the reasonableness of a woman's actions," says Stanford law professor Bob Weisberg.

"In the last five years, there has been a change in perspective on domestic violence," adds Cal Remington, president of the California Probation, Parole, and Correctional Association. "The battered women syndrome is certainly very real. When the victim strikes back to the point where someone is killed, it's still an extreme response, but when you've been victimized for years and years, that needs to be a mitigating factor in sentencing."

Advocates say that even with the new law and legal precedents, many battered women are still receiving unnecessarily harsh sentences.

"I hear of people that come in [to the criminal justice system] all the time now where domestic violence still isn't taken into consideration," Wang says.

Women like Briones have never been able to benefit from the legal changes and the public attitude shifts.

"Even though there is much more relative public sympathy for these women than for other prisoners, there are still huge legal and procedural barriers," Weisberg says. "So here, where we have some borderline scientific evidence [like battered women syndrome] which is very much fraught with politics and philosophy, the litigative system is not well designed to deal with it. Relief is rare, and it does lie almost entirely with governors. But no politician thinks of it being in his interest to pardon prisoners with clemency."

But the new law is "significant," Weisberg says. "It doesn't mean you're going to win, but it does open things up."

Wang agrees that the law is "exciting," but implementing it will be a challenge. "The new law provides an alternative avenue of relief for all these women who qualify for a habeas," she says. "But how do you get in touch with all the women who qualify? And it hasn't been done before, so we don't know what will work and which arguments will not work. Each habeas writ is a one-shot deal, so if you screw up, you screw up. Unfortunately, some women will have to be the guinea pigs by [virtue of the fact] that this is such a new law."

About The Author

Bernice Yeung


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