Woman whose tale of abuse was focus in commutations still jailed 8 gained freedom

4 others still wait

June 02, 1991|By David Simon

For Gale Hawkins, the logic of the governor's mercy has proven elusive.

She is the one who never wavered, insisting from the day of her arrest that she stabbed her boyfriend only after years of abuse. She is the one regarded -- by fellow inmates, by psychologists, even by the prosecutor who convicted her -- as the textbook example of a woman who killed because she saw no other way out.

She is the one who so impressed Gov. William Donald Schaefer that he told her story when he announced the commutations of women who killed or assaulted mates they say beat them.

"The one who was abusing her was using her as a punching bag," Mr. Schaefer told reporters at his Feb. 19 press conference. "There's no question in my mind that she was going to be killed."

One other thing about Gale Annette Hawkins: She is still in prison.

Hawkins, 34, is serving a life sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. The West Baltimore woman was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1979 stabbing death of Randolph Harry.

Instead of freeing Hawkins, whose story he heard when he visited the MCIW last year and then quoted repeatedly, Mr. Schaefer granted commutation to eight other women -- three of whom became a source of controversy when The Sun cited discrepancies between the legal record and summaries of the cases provided to the governor by aides.

For Hawkins and three other women who were passed over for clemency, the questions are both painful and obvious: Why them and not me? What was it that made others more deserving of mercy? What was it about my case that worried the governor?

The answers aren't so obvious. The four women appear to have met the same criteria for battered-spouse syndrome that state officials say they followed when setting the other inmates free. And while aspects of their cases might give state officials some concern, the problems don't seem at all comparable to those evident in the February commutations.

None of the four women still imprisoned killed their mates for profit, as may have been the case with one woman who was freed by the governor. None has been accused of being a danger to anyone other than the men they killed, unlike another woman released in February, who had been charged with pulling a knife on a potential witness in her case.

At least three of the four women have some independent corroboration for their accounts of abuse, unlike one woman granted clemency who acknowledged that she knew of no evidence of such abuse. Nor was corroboration found by detectives or offered at her trial.

Moreover, the commutation process -- whether by intent or by chance -- managed to deny mercy to the four prisoners who had served the longest time and did not benefit from court decisions allowing evidence of prior domestic abuse to be considered.

The longest sentence served by any of the eight women freed by the governor was just over four years. In contrast, the four women still at the MCIW have served between 5 1/2 and 13 years. And all but one of those freed were sentenced in 1988 or later, when appeals court decisions established a more liberal legal standard allowing testimony about prior abuse.

Aides in the governor's office say they cannot explain the rationale behind the clemency recommendations made by public safety officials to the governor: "Frankly, we don't know what the reasoning was," said Nancy J. Nowak, director of the governor's Office of Justice Assistance.

Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Bishop L. Robinson declined to answer questions about either the commutation process or its result, citing dissatisfaction with The Sun's coverage of the issue.

"We simply feel that you're going to write what you're going to write and we're not going to get a fair hearing," said Leonard A. Sipes, public safety spokesman.

Nor would officials from the House of Ruth or the Public Justice Center, advocacy groups that screened the commutation candidates at the prison, respond to specific questions about their role in the review process. They, too, say they do not understand the choices made by state public safety officials.

Gubernatorial aides say that the questions raised by the February commutations have left Mr. Robinson and other public safety officials more cautious. As a result, new commutation recommendations for Hawkins and the three women remaining at the MCIW -- which were requested by the governor in February -- are still pending though they were expected by May 1.

State investigators have been checking court records and interviewing judges and prosecutors about the remaining cases -- research that was not performed in their first review. State officials say the change is not due to criticism of the earlier commutations, but because the four remaining candidates were already turned down once.

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