Schaefer commuted sentences without all the facts

March 17, 1991|By David Simonand William F. Zorzi Jr. Reporter James Bock of The Sun's metropolitan staff contributed to this article.

In a characteristically dramatic gesture, Gov. William Donald Schaefer exercised one of the most awesome powers of his office last month -- the power to reverse court-ordered penalties for murderers.

"After a careful and comprehensive review" of each case, Mr. Schaefer commuted the sentences of eight women he described as victims of continuing abuse by their mates -- seven of whom killed the men. He became only the second governor in the nation to free a group of women said to suffer from "battered spouse syndrome," a psychological disorder that can purportedly drive people in violent relationships to kill their abusers.

"It was not one of those things that you just jump in and say, 'Well, I'll do this.' " the governor declared at a news conference Feb. 19 in which he also pressed for legislation that would allow evidence of battered spouse syndrome to be heard in Maryland courts.

Yet an examination by The Sun of the seven murder commutation cases indicates that the process by which those cases were reviewed and prepared for the governor's action was not comprehensive. Nor are the facts of the cases as unequivocal as the governor suggested.

The documentation of abuse, prepared by the House of Ruth, an advocacy group for battered women, accompanied by some checks by state public safety and parole officials, overlooked or ignored readily available evidence that contradicts the contentions of at least three inmates set free:

* Bernadette Barnes, 45, of Baltimore was represented as having murdered her abusive husband after a rape and severe beating.

Unbeknown to the governor and the staffers who prepared the information he was given, Barnes was actually convicted of hiring a hit man to kill her husband. In a plot developed weeks before the murder, co-conspirators were assured that she would collect on a $22,000 life insurance policy.

"It was a contract killing, pure and simple," says Stuart O. Simms, the Baltimore state's attorney, who said that neither he nor his office was contacted by state officials looking into the case for a recommendation on commutation.

* Patricia Ann Washington, 33, of Hyattsville, was represented to the governor as a victim of 10 years' abuse by her husband. Yet in her statements to police after the murder, to a jury on the witness stand and in repeated psychological evaluations after trial, Washington consistently maintained that she had never been hit by her husband before the night of the murder.

"He never hit me," she testified.

The governor was also told that Washington killed her husband "during attack," but no independent evidence could be found in the police investigation or trial record to corroborate any abuse by her husband -- either on the night of the murder or in the years before.

* Virginia J. Johnson, 27, of Salisbury, killed her boyfriend during an attack, according to the case review memo presented to the governor. But witness statements and physical evidence in the legal record indicate otherwise.

Moreover, a review of the case would raise the possibility of a violent nature outside of the abuse syndrome.

While out on bail awaiting her murder trial, Johnson was arrested again after she allegedly pulled a knife on a potential witness. and threatened: "Bitch, I'm gonna kill you. I done already killed one person, and I'll kill you, too."

"The governor has the power and authority to do what he did,said Davis R. Ruark, Wicomico County state's attorney. "But I'm concerned that neither I nor any investigator has had input."

Confronted by the contradictions between the governor's portrayal of the cases and the legal record, Paul J. Davis, chairman of the Maryland Parole Commission, and Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of public safety and correctional services, acknowledged that they did not review trial testimony or other court records.

State officials did not query any of those involved in the original investigation, prosecution or defense of the women's cases. Nor did they attempt on their own to corroborate the histories of abuse cited by the women.

The Domestic Violence Legal Clinic at the House of Ruth, a shelter for domestic violence victims and an advocate for legal recognition of battered spouse syndrome, gathered the information.

Attorneys at he House of Ruth did not review the case records before sending the women's versions of events to state officials, but the material they did submit persuaded the governor to commute the women's sentences five weeks after he visited five inmates in prison--women he later described as having been "pushed absolutely to the brink."

In commuting the sentences en masse, Mr. Schaefer followed the lead of then-Gov. Richard Celeste of Ohio, who had issued similar commutations to a group of women some months before.

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