Group criticizes Sun reports on commutations

March 23, 1991|By David Simonand William F. Zorzi Jr.

The Domestic Violence Task Force yesterday accused The Sun of "factual inaccuracies and omissions" in its report of the process by which Gov. William Donald Schaefer commuted the sentences of seven women who killed their mates because they said they were victims of "battered spouse syndrome."

The task force includes the Public Justice Center and House of Ruth, an advocacy group and shelter for battered women that documented the abuse for Mr. Schaefer's office. In a five-page press release, the group said The Sun's reports "misrepresent both the thoroughness of our investigation and report, and the careful nature of the governor's review."

Governor Schaefer said earlier this week that the commutation process was being reviewed.

The newspaper articles noted that legal records were not reviewed and prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges were not contacted in the commutation process. But the advocacy group said it was untrue that their 250-page report to the governor "overlooked and ignored readily available evidence," as the newspaper reported.

"Nothing that the Domestic Violence Task Force says contradicts the fundamental point of our story: that the governor commuted the sentences without having all the facts," said James I. Houck, managing editor of The Sun. "Their own statement indicates that they either didn't know or didn't tell the governor the full story."

The group further criticized the newspaper's contention that Mr. Schaefer was not informed that one of the women commuted last month, Bernadette Barnes, anticipated collecting on a $22,000 life insurance policy after her husband was killed by a hit man she hired.

The group charged that Sun reporters were aware of the fact that Barnes' prison file, which was reviewed by public safety officials, "contained an explicit statement by Ms. Barnes that she received $22,000 from an insurance company, but she denied that this policy, purchased 17 years before, had anything to do with the homicide." The group contended the file "also was made available to the governor."

The newspaper articles stated that officials in the governor's office expressed surprise at the possibility of a murder-for-profit motive and said they only learned of it after reporters began making inquiries.

In addition, a Feb. 18 memo to the governor from aides directly involved in the commutation process makes no mention of the insurance money. In his own comments to a reporter, Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of public safety and correctional services, said he was aware of the insurance payment. He incorrectly said the amount received by Barnes was $5,000, most of which went to funeral expenses.

The task force statement noted that Barnes' two daughters provided information about a history of abuse by her husband and that The Sun was aware of that information, but chose not to print it. In the first paragraph of its March 17 account of the Barnes case, the newspaper stated, "no question exists that Bernadette Barnes suffered prior abuse."

In the case of Patricia A. Washington, the press release stated that her trial attorney told both Sun and Washington Post reporters that prior to her homicide trial, Ms. Washington had recounted years of sexual and physical abuse, but refused her attorney's plea to discuss the abuse on the witness stand.

In her interview with a Sun reporter, Elvira White, the defense attorney, gave a different account. Ms. White acknowledged that her client had told her of prior abuse, but said she was "surprised" when Washington denied such abuse on the witness stand. However, because a later review of the trial transcript showed that Ms. White did not ask any question about prior abuse during direct examination, the attorney's remarks were not included in the article.

In the case of Virginia J. Johnson, the group stated that it was untrue that the dismissal of separate assault and weapon charges against Johnson was part of her 15-year plea agreement for the murder of her boyfriend in Salisbury.

The prosecutor in the case, Wicomico County State's Attorney Da

vis R. Ruark, said yesterday that "as a technical point, [the dismissal] was not a part of the actual agreement. It resulted from that agreement."

Mr. Ruark said that after Johnson accepted the guilty plea to second-degree murder, prosecutors saw no purpose in pursuing second trial on the lesser charges. The prosecutor said the assault case could have been prosecuted. Johnson denies her guilt, according to the press release.

"The fact that the histories of abuse were inadmissible at trial provides an aditional and compelling justification for Governor Schaefer's merciful intervention in these cases," the press release stated. "His decisions were based upon comprehensive information, and they were right!"

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