By Sandy Kobrin
Thursday, July 1, 2004
Advocates of Maria Suarez, a battered woman wrongfully imprisoned for 22 years in California, are pushing to reform state laws they say are more punitive toward women. They also want to change social attitudes about domestic violence.
LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)--Maria Suarez is finally out of jail.
The horror and isolation of being wrongly imprisoned for the past 22 years, however, still haunts the 44-year-old Mexican immigrant.
At 16, Suarez was sold as a sex slave toAnselmo Covarrubias, a 62-year-old brujo, orwitch doctor, in Azusa, Calif. After walking in on Covarrubias being beaten to death by aneighbor, Suarez was told to wash the weapon and hide it under the house. She did as she was told. Convicted of first degree murder, Suarez was sentenced to 25 years to life.
She was tried before California recognized battered women's syndrome and before there were federal laws enacted to protect immigrant victims of sex trafficking. Two years ago, the state Board of Prison Terms concluded that she suffered from "an extreme level" of battered-woman syndrome and approved her for parole.
Suarez still suffers daily. Afraid to be alone or sleep by herself, she requires therapy and constant companionship. She is still filled with fear and has constant nightmares about her captivity. To prevent other women from suffering the same ordeal, her niece Patricia Valencia, lawyer Jessica Dominguez and Congresswoman Hilda Solis--all instrumental in gaining Suarez' release--have vowed to work to free battered women in prison and educate Latina women to the horrors of domestic abuse.
"We are trying desperately hard to educate the public. There is a silence and shame on families where battery and abuse occurs," said the 36-year-old Valencia, who decided 10 years ago to lead the effort to free her aunt. "California laws have been particularly unjust towards women. There are often harsher sentences for women who kill men than for men who kill women. Women who have been abused and kill are depicted as monsters here. They are portrayed as having something to gain, most of the time, money."
Fifteen of the 47 women on death row across the country are in California. There are over 7,000 female inmates in California, leading the nation in number of female prisoners incarcerated. Women are also being sent to prison in higher percentages than men, though not, of course in actual numbers.
Some crimes committed by women, such as killing an abusive partner, will earn a sentence of 20 years to life. By contrast, a man who walks in on his wife in bed with another man and kills her will not get a life sentence. The man's crime is viewed as a "crime of passion," and is charged and sentenced differently, and more leniently, such as involuntary manslaughter.
"Women are being targeted more than men lately," said Heidi Strupp, of Legal Services for Prisoners With Children. "We have an extremely punitive justice system here in California which includes the draconian Three Strikes law and mandatory minimums," Strupp said.
In 1994, California voters approved a ballot initiative known as Three Strikes and You're Out, in which people who are convicted of three felonies may end up facing life in prison.
"It's not that we have more women committing crimes here or becoming more violent, that's not the case," she said. "Society is very hard on women when they cross the boundary of what is 'appropriate behavior.' Mothers that commit crimes are looked at even worse. The vast majority of women in prison are related to domestic violence."
Political leaders in California, including the current governor, former film star and bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his predecessor, Gray Davis, often campaign for tough approaches on crime. The prison guards union, California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the most powerful union in the state, has been against a reduction in the prison population for any reason, strongly reducing even model prisoners' chances for parole.
"While teachers are getting pink slips all over the state, guards are getting pay raises, 35 percent over five years and promoting fear with the mantra 'You don't want to see us on strike,'" noted Strupp.
Olivia Wang, an attorney with freebatteredwomen.org, says gaping income gaps in the state fuel fears of crime. "There is also a great disparity of wealth in this state that exacerbates the fear which increases the demand for imprisonment," said Wang. "We live in a place of extreme wealth and extreme poverty."
Two weeks ago, Schwarzenegger reversed the California Board of Prison Terms' decision to release Christy Camp on parole despite 1,000 letters and faxes to his office urging her release. The move suggests that Schwarzenegger is likely to follow the example set by Davis, who said that prisoners who had killed someone would not get parole unless they did so "in a pine box."
The 38-year-old Camp is in prison for the murder of her abusive partner in December of 1987 when she was the 21-year-old mother of two. She had been with him since she was 14 and was sentenced to 16 years to life.
Of the approximately 600 women imprisoned in California for killing abusive partners, many were convicted prior to 1992, when California law did not permit evidence of battery or abuse to be presented during the defense. While being battered is not a "defense" for the crime, it does provide mitigating circumstances about why the crime occurred.
Before 1992, if a woman who was being beaten and having her life threatened, then killed her tormentor, the record of the abuse was not allowed in court. One now could call an expert to testify on the abuse and how it affected the crime. As a result, the defendant could be found guilty of manslaughter instead of first degree murder, with a sentence of 10 years instead of 25 to life.
Getting new trials, throwing out convictions and freeing women for time served are the goals of the San Francisco-based Habeas Project. The project is part of a larger push to reform the criminal-justice system's treatment of women in abusive relationships.
"There is still the thought here that women are somehow being abused because they want or deserve it," said Wang. "Many people don't recognize the causal relationship between abuse and violence."
Suarez and the team behind her are trying to change assumptions about a battered woman's culpability, particularly in the Spanish-speaking immigrant community.
"Women who are not here legally and are being abused also get taunted about being deported and getting thrown out of the country," Valencia said. "We are trying to tell women that even if you are threatened with deportation, you still need to leave the abusive relationship. They need to know they are protected even if they are not legal. Many of the women have no idea of what their rights are."
"Domestic violence and sexual abuse is a huge taboo in the Latino community. We need to break the silence. My family still cannot talk about what happened," she added.
Sandy Kobrin is a Los Angeles based writer who specializes in writing about women's issues and criminal justice.
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