Gov. William Donald Schaefer sat down with five convicted murderers yesterday at Maryland's women's prison and heard their stories -- stories they said they had never been able to tell fully in court.
The women all killed husbands or boyfriends who they say physically abused them, and they are serving sentences ranging from 15 years to life in prison at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup for their crimes.
Now, with the help of Representative Constance A. Morella, R-Md.-8th, they are pushing for legislation that would allow women who kill their abusive partners to use in their legal defense evidence that they were battered -- even when the woman is the aggressor in the slaying.
Mr. Schaefer emerged from the 1 1/2 -hour prison meeting pledging to study the bill now before the General Assembly and miffed at the Parole Commission for not giving battered women's stories "enough attention."
But he said he was "not even thinking yet" about pardoning the women, as Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste did last month with 25 battered women convicted of slayings or assaults.
"I am not here to pardon five women. I came here to listen," Mr. Schaefer said.
The governor said he was touched by what he heard: "When you read in the newspaper that Mary Jones has shot her husband, that's one way to read it. When you see Mary Jones and see how she got where she is, that's a little different than a cold newspaper story."
Mrs. Morella, who met with the women last month and promoted the Schaefer visit, said she was pleased that "this domestic violence will no longer be hidden under a rug."
The five inmates said afterward that they felt they got a fair hearing from the governor.
Gale Hawkins, who has been serving a life sentence since 1979 for stabbing her boyfriend to death with scissors, would need the governor's approval for parole.
But she said, "What I've done today was to help other women. This is a selfless thing. I'm not doing this for me."
She said that if she had been able to testify in her defense that her boyfriend had beaten her, "My sentence would have been a lot more lenient."
Mytokia Friend, a former Baltimore police officer serving 15 years for shooting her husband to death, said the question she was always asked about her violent relationship was, "Why didn't you leave?"
"I stayed in there for fear, for hope, because I thought he would change, would come back to being the person I knew when I first met him. But I reached a breaking point. I was just sick and tired; it was too much for me. I reached a breaking point and lost it," she said.
Two years ago, the Court of Special Appeals rejected Ms. Friend's contention that she suffered from "battered women's syndrome" and killed her husband in self-defense. The court ruled that since Ms. Friend was the aggressor -- she shot him five times at close range as he was lying in bed -- she was not entitled to invoke the doctrine of self-defense.
Judy Wolfer, legal clinic director at the House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for battered women and children, said expert testimony was needed in court cases to answer the question of why women didn't leave.
"If you don't have experts to testify about battered women's syndrome, it doesn't make sense to anybody else," she said. The essence of the defense, she said, is: "I couldn't leave, and I knew he was going to kill me so I had to act."
According to the Public Justice Center, a Baltimore legal services group, a battered woman often devalues herself, feels unable to stop her partner's violence and sees no way out of her situation. Battered women often stay because they have nowhere else to go and no means to support themselves or their children, the center says.
Virginia Johnson, who is serving 15 years for stabbing her boyfriend to death, said that she would advise battered women who were caught in a cycle of violence, "It's not going to get better. Pack your clothes and leave."
But she said, through tears, of the man she murdered: "I loved him, and I still love him, and if I live to be 180, I will love him still. That doesn't change."