Women inmates tell of pain, abusers Women who killed say their attacks were a way to flee the beatings.

February 21, 1991|By Norris West | Norris West,Evening Sun Staff

Before she shot her husband to death, Joyce Steiner was treated like a war prisoner.

"He tortured, beat me for seven years. He would have flashbacks of Vietnam," she said. "He tied me up, burned me, locked me in a closet for hours. . . . He would do things that nobody believes a man could do, a man who walked down the street with his head up and said, 'I'm Robert Steiner.' "

At 10:57 p.m. on May 5, 1988, she broke camp. As it had many other times over a seven-year period, an argument started. Unlike the other times, she said, Robert Steiner was "stone sober," as he threatened to kill her. She said she did the only thing she could to prevent the beatings, burnings and, perhaps, her death.

"I felt this was my only way out," Steiner, of Anne Arundel County, said during a news conference yesterday in the visiting room of the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women at Jessup.

Steiner and seven other battered women all have been convicted for murder or battery for killing or wounding their husbands and boyfriends. But they were on the brink of freedom after Gov. William Donald Schaefer's decision Tuesday to commute their sentences.

The governor reached his decision after hearing "compelling" stories of abuse from five women in the prison.

Steiner, who wants to help other abused women seek help instead of deadly weapons, said she was elated that the state is listening to stories of abuse that juries are not allowed to hear because Maryland does not recognize battered women's syndrome as a criminal defense.

Both houses of the General Assembly have scheduled hearings on bills that would allow courts to recognize that defense.

Nancy Nowak, executive director of the governor's Office of Assistance, said state officials may commute sentences in four other potential battered women cases and that as many as 18 more may be reviewed later.

"This group of eight is the beginning," Nowak said.

Other women whose sentences were commuted are: Virginia Johnson and Arlene Ellis, of Wicomico County; Mytokia Friend, Eleanor Crabtree and Bernadette Barnes, of Baltimore City; Juanita Stinson of Garrett County; and Patricia Washington of Prince George's County.

Carol Alexander, executive director of the House of Ruth, a battered women's shelter in Baltimore, said abused women often are too afraid or embarrassed to seek help. She said she hopes the stories of the eight women will give others courage to leave dangerous relationships.

Mytokia Friend was afraid to leave her husband or seek help even though she was brave enough to be a Baltimore police officer.

"A person can be in any profession and this type of abuse can happen," said Friend, 30, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1987 for killing her husband, Tyree Friend. "When I was at work, I was a police officer. When I was at home, I was an abused wife."

She said she lived in fear of her husband, and that the abuse had started even before they were married. She said she was afraid to leave because she was convinced that he would follow her. As the abuse continued, she said, her self-esteem diminished.

Then, finally, "I reached the breaking point."

When asked about the criticism voiced by Tyree's family of her clemency, she expressed compassion toward them.

Friend said she is looking forward to re-establishing her relationship with her 11-year-old son and trying to live a normal life. Her conviction prohibits her from regaining her job as a police officer, but she has completed work for an associate's degree and has received a job offer from an insurance firm.

Like some of the other women, Friend said she isn't thinking about having relationships with men right away, but said she would be better equipped for them when she does.

"I'm no longer the naive, low self-esteem person that I was," she said.

Virginia Johnson, 27, said she was excited about gaining her clemency and was hoping to get home in time to bake a birthday cake for her 9-year-old twin daughters tomorrow.

But she hasn't let go of her past. She said she still loves the man she stabbed to death 4 1/2 years ago and still feels guilt.

"I have to live with the fact that I took a human life, something that wasn't mine to give," Johnson said.

The death of her husband still haunts Juanita Stinson, 58, who said she endured 30 years of abuse.

"I tried to leave, but he always came after me," Stinson said. She is certain that she acted in self-defense when she killed her husband, but her eyes filled with tears as she described her nightmares.

"I feel like he's coming back," she cried.

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