Pardons for battered women considered

January 11, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron and Laura Lippman | Thomas W. Waldron and Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Gov. William Donald Schaefer says he is contemplating granting pardons to some incarcerated women convicted of murdering abusive husbands, fathers or boyfriends.

Schaefer will visit with several prisoners at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup Monday to discuss their situation and the issue of battered women.

Schaefer said last night he's going at the urging of Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-8th, to see "whether there were any inequities" in the women's situation.

"It was [Morella's] feeling that some of the women hadn't been treated fairly," Schaefer said.

Morella said, "It's not a trivial thing that can be swept under the rug."

Morella, who has worked on federal legislation to help battered women and combat domestic violence, met last month with several women who were imprisoned for murdering or assaulting abusive men. Impressed with their articulateness, Morella called Schaefer and invited him to do the same thing.

"I have to compliment him for his willingness," Morella said.

Paul E. Schurick, the governor's press secretary, said several people have been talking to Schaefer about the plight of battered women.

"This is an opportunity for him to go out and personally meet with the women and really get a firsthand and better understanding," Schurick said.

It is unclear how many women Schaefer may consider pardoning, he said.

Outgoing Gov. Richard F. Celeste of Ohio last month granted clemency 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 female inmates in this country, according to advocates for abused women. Women's rights advocates applauded the move, while prosecutors and judges assailed it.

Maryland is one of a few states that does not recognize the concept of "battered women's syndrome" -- a psychological condition in which an abused woman believes she cannot leave the abuser, but will be killed if she stays.

At least 15 women in Maryland prisons have been identified by the Public Justice Center, Inc., a Baltimore-based group, as abused women who acted in the belief that their mates eventually would kill them, said Cristina Gutierrez, an attorney who has represented several battered women accused of killing a husband or boyfriend.

Some psychiatrists and psychologists -- Lenore Walker of Denver is the best known -- argue that these women suffer from a syndrome not unlike post-traumatic stress disorder. They have learned to predict violent episodes and their escalating severity.

Yet the women believe they cannot leave their homes, fearing their abusive mates will track them down wherever they go.

Judges in 15 states have allowed testimony that sets a precedent for the battered women's syndrome as a defense, while two states -- Louisiana and Missouri -- recognize the syndrome by statute.

However, repeated attempts to pass such a law in Maryland have failed, and no judicial ruling has created a precedent for use of the syndrome as an imperfect self-defense.

In May, the Public Justice Center produced a video, "A Plea For Justice," featuring four women inmates and Leslie Boyd, education coordinator of the House of Ruth, a shelter for battered women.

Of the other women in the video, Mytokia Friend is perhaps the best-known. A Baltimore police officer, she killed her husband, Tyree, in 1987. Probation was recommended, Gutierrez said, but Judge Arrie W. Davis sentenced her to 15 years. Gutierrez attempted to introduce testimony about battered women's syndrome, but it was not allowed during the trial and the Court of Special Appeals upheld Davis' opinion.

Kevin Thomas contributed to this story.

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