'Battered women' inmates voice elation, fear Schaefer commuted sentences for 8

February 21, 1991|By James Bock

Joyce Mae Steiner was elated. Mytokia Friend had "bittersweet feelings." And Juanita Stinson was afraid.

Seven of eight "battered women" prisoners whose sentences for murdering or assaulting abusive husbands or boyfriends were commuted this week by the governor, who spoke to reporters yesterday. The women are due to be released by the weekend.

"I have been waiting for something like this to happen for a very long time," said Ms. Friend, a former Baltimore police officer who shot her husband to death as he was lying in bed. She said her 11-year-old son by a previous marriage was "very excited that Mommy's coming home."

But the parents of the man she murdered, Tyree Friend, a 22-year-old prison guard, said they were outraged by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's decision to commute her 15-year murder sentence after she had served only three years, one month.

"I don't know what the world is coming to," said Della Friend, Tyree's mother. "You go out and kill people and spend one day in prison and go out and kill some more. My personal opinion is she did the crime, why not serve the time?"

Their advocates say the women prisoners are victims of "battered women's syndrome" -- a feeling of powerlessness that prevents them from walking out on abusive relationships and convinces them that the only escape is killing their abuser. But some prosecutors and relatives of the victims say that commuting the women's sentences may send the wrong message -- that murder can be acceptable.

Virginia J. Johnson of Salisbury, whose 15-year term for stabbing her boyfriend to death is being cut short, said that when she heard the news, "I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry." She said she will rejoin her four children. "I want to tell all the people it doesn't have to be this way," shesaid. "This is my life sentence. . . . I have to live with the fact I took a human life."

But the man who prosecuted Ms. Johnson, Wicomico County State's Attorney Davis Ruark, said he was upset that the governor's office didn't consult him about the case.

He would have told them that while out on bond in the murder case, Ms. Johnson was also charged with carrying a deadly weapon at a high school attended by a potential witness in the slaying. After her murder conviction, the charges were dropped. But Mr. Ruark would have liked Mr. Schaefer to know.

"The governor has the power and authority to do what he did," Mr. Ruark said. "But I'm concerned that neither I nor any investigator has had any input."

Juanita Stinson was another of the women speaking to reporters yesterday at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. She killed her former husband after what she called three decades of abuse, cut him up in seven pieces and buried him in a shallow grave. Yesterday she said she was grateful for her pending release and the chance to be with her five grown children -- but also afraid.

"Being in jail was no punishment. It was like being safe behind bars," the 58-year-old former Garrett County resident said. "I'm in fear all the time. I feel like he's coming back. . . . I just pray I can keep on going. I'm glad I'm old."

Joyce Mae Steiner was looking forward to resuming her job as an executive secretary in Columbia. She said she killed her husband Robert, former owner of the Old Mill Pancake House on U.S. 50 near the Bay Bridge, after seven years of abuse.

"Right now I'm elated that someone would listen to us that there are battered women who need help," she said.

Bernadette Barnes of West Baltimore, serving 40 years for hiring a hit man to kill her husband, said of the crime: "I feel bad. I'm sorry that it happened. But I don't have the threat of him constantly over my shoulder."

Mytokia Friend said her feelings were "bittersweet" because three fellow prisoners, who met Governor Schaefer along with her at the prison last month and co-starred with her in a video about battered women's syndrome by a Baltimore legal services group, the Public Justice Center, have not had their sentences commuted. The governor said their cases would undergo further review.

Ms. Friend said she would continue to urge women in abusive relationships to "walk away. . . . They don't have to follow in our footsteps. There is help out there." She said she had "great compassion" for her late husband's parents, and "I would hope they gain some understanding about the work I'm trying to do."

But Della Friend said: "She killed my son, the only child I had. She has robbed us of a son, of grandchildren, of everything he could give us. But she can pick her life up and do what she wants to do. It's not fair."

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