ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer, moved by stories of spousal abuse shared with him recently by female inmates in a Jessup prison, commuted the sentences yesterday of eight women imprisoned for assaulting or murdering abusive husbands and boyfriends.
"We think, after a thorough review of their cases, it's the right bTC thing to do," Governor Schaefer told reporters at a State House news conference. "They served enough time."
The eight were among 12 women whose experiences were brought to the governor's attention by a team of lawyers with the House of Ruth, the Baltimore shelter for battered women, and the Public Justice Center, a
Baltimore legal services group.
At the urging of Representative Constance A. Morella, D-Md.-8th, the governor visited five of the women at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup last month and asked state officials to review their sentences.
The review by Bishop L. Robinson, public safety and correctional services secretary, and members of the Maryland Parole Commission led to a recommendation of clemency for the eight. They also recommended, and the governor approved, moving up a parole hearing date one year to this August for a ninth, Carolyn Sue Wallace of Baltimore County.
But Mr. Schaefer said he still wants Ms. Wallace's sentence and the sentences being served by the remaining three women to be reviewed again by Mr. Robinson and the Parole Commission. "I think, as a result of recommendations by the House of Ruth, something will be done," the governor said.
Mr. Schaefer also announced yesterday his support for legislation to allow evidence of spousal abuse and information regarding "battered women's syndrome" to be admitted at trial. Under current law, such information may be ruled inadmissible by a judge.
Accompanied by Marjorie J. Vincent, a Duke University law student who has made the issue of spousal abuse the focus of her yearlong reign as Miss America, the governor also announced a variety of initiatives aimed at domestic violence.
They include creation of a statewide prevention task force and an effort to get corporate foundations and the federal government to provide more money for such things as family counseling and shelters for battered women.
"It's estimated that about 200,000 Maryland women are victims of domestic violence each year," Mr. Schaefer said. "The problem is that we don't hear much about it until there is a tragedy."
The eight women, who were serving sentences ranging from 10 months to 40 years, will be released later this week, said Mary Ann Saar, a Schaefer aide. Most of the women were convicted of murdering their abusive lovers.
The governor stopped short of declaring the women innocent of their crimes. Asked if they should ever have been imprisoned, the governor said, "I don't think I can answer that yet . . . but if I were the judge, I'd weigh all the evidence."
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 follow a decision by the former Ohio governor, Richard Celeste, to release 25 women inmates in a similar situation last December.
Judith A. Wolfer, director of the House of Ruth's Domestic Violence Legal Clinic, said Mr. Schaefer's announcement will be a great relief to the eight, who had been hoping for a reprieve since his Jan. 14 visit to Jessup.
"It's been a fight between being elated and ecstatic that they might get out and protecting themselves from being let down," Ms. Wolfer said.
Ms. Wolfer and Rachel A. Wohl of the Public Justice Center said advocates will continue to press the case for the remaining four battered women. "None of them should still be in prison," Ms. Wohl said.
Interestingly, three of the five women the governor visited in Jessup -- including one whose interview Mr. Schaefer said yesterday "will stay in my mind for quite some time"-- did not have their sentences commuted. Aides say that is one reason Mr. Schaefer wants the remaining four cases re-evaluated.
The eight freed women are Mytokia Friend, Bernadette Barnes and Eleanor Crabtree of Baltimore, Joyce Steiner of Anne Arundel County, Virginia Johnson and Arlene Ellis of Wicomico County, Juanita Stinson of Garrett County and Patricia Washington of Prince George's County.