Ohio grants clemency to 25 battered women VTC

December 22, 1990|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Gov. Richard F. Celeste of Ohio granted clemency yesterday to 25 women who had been convicted of killing or assaulting husbands or companions who the women said had physically abused them.

It was the first mass release of battered women inmates in this country, advocates of abused women said. The move was praised by women's-rights advocates but assailed by judges and prosecutors.

Twenty-one of the women are to be released in the coming weeks, and the remaining four will be required to serve a minimum of two years in prison.

Mr. Celeste, who is leaving office next month, cited a ruling by the state's highest court this year that allowed female defendants in Ohio to present expert testimony, for the first time, in a defense of being a "battered woman."

In light of this, he said, he reviewed the records of more than 100 women imprisoned for killing or assaulting a spouse or male companion and decided to commute the sentences of 25 of them.

Mr. Celeste defended the releases as recognition of the complicated lives and motivations of these women.

"These women were entrapped emotionally and physically," Mr. Celeste said in a telephone interview. "They were the victims of violence, repeated violence. They loved these men even though they beat them and feared them. They were so emotionally entangled they were incapable of walking away. If I thought they would be a threat, I wouldn't have commuted their sentences."

Dr. Lenore Walker, executive director of the Domestic Violence Institute, a non-profit research and advocacy group in Denver, said, "This is a signal to the rest of the country that women will no longer permit them selves to be battered and abused by men.

"They should never have been in prison in the first place. Women don't kill men unless they've been pushed to a point of desperation."

But prosecutors said yesterday's action could encourage more women to use violence to escape abuse. "The fact that you're battered does not give you the license to kill," said Dennis Watkins, the Trumbull County prosecutor, who is president of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys' Association, which represents most of the state's prosecutors.

"Now, instead of going to the courts or getting a divorce, these women will think, 'Maybe I'll kill him.'

"Taking a human life," he said, "is not something we want to promote."

Last summer, after the Ohio Supreme Court's ruling, the state legislature approved a bill, later signed by the governor, that essentially ratified the court's ruling.

Granting the clemency was Mr. Celeste's last major action before leaving the governor's office, and was an especially symbolic one for a man who, with his wife, Dagmar, turned their Cleveland home into a shelter for battered women when he moved to Columbus to become lieutenant governor in the 1970s.

Mr. Celeste, who has served two terms, was barred by state law from seeking a third term.

For several months, the governor said, he reviewed the files of 105 women, rejected the requests of 48 of them and yesterday returned the cases of 32 others to the parole board for further review.

The 25 women whose sentences were commuted will have to perform 200 hours of community service in a domestic-violence program. The governor's action does not expunge the crimes from their records.

Ohio was one of the last major states where women had been barred from presenting expert testimony about being physically abused, according to women's-rights advocates.

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