By Rebecca Vesely
Friday, January 23, 2004
In his brief time as California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger has paroled two battered women. Now prisoners' advocates are looking for even more help from the man who took office amid negative publicity about his treatment of women.
SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)--Rosario Munoz last tasted freedom 17 years ago, when she killed her husband's lover after years of being abused by her husband. Jeri Becker has been imprisoned for 23 years for helping her abusive husband cover up his murder of a drug dealer on their houseboat in Marin County.
Now, thanks to a voter revolt that yanked former Governor Gray Davis out of office and installed movie action hero ArnoldSchwarzenegger in his place, both women have been paroled. Davis had disappointed many advocates for battered women in prison by refusing to shorten their time in prison, even though the state's parole board had recommended they be freed.
Since his Nov. 17 inauguration, Schwarzenegger has granted parole to six prisoners with life sentences, including Munoz and Becker. He moved up the release date to December of a third battered woman, Maria Suarez. She spent 23 years in prison for hiding the murder weapon a neighbor used to kill her abuser.
Although the two paroled women are technically free, they both remain in jail.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service is detaining them in Southern California. At the end of January, each woman will get court hearings that will decide whether they will be deported to Mexico. Both want to remain in the United States, with their families. Supporters are appealing to Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein for help.
Despite the two releases, advocates for battered women say Schwarzenegger needs to do more for battered women in prison for life.
Schwarzenegger has denied parole to other women who killed their abusers, most notably Valere Boyd, who shot her abuser in 1985. She was 18 years old at the time and he was 52 when they met. Though granted parole twice, Davis vetoed the parole board's decision.
"We hoped that he would be more sympathetic than Davis," said Olivia Wang, a lawyer for Free Battered Women, a San Francisco-based group that provides free legal services for battered women in prison. She said the women she represents hoped Schwarzenegger would look closely at their cases and histories when they came up for parole. Under fire for admitted sexual misconduct during his years as a movie star and bodybuilder, the new governor had pledged to be sensitive to women's causes during his administration.
California is one of three states where the governor can supersede a decision by the Board of Prison Terms, the commission appointed by the governor that decides who gets paroled. It's a power that Davis wielded often. During his five-year tenure, Davis released only eight prisoners convicted of murder that his parole board had approved for release. He denied parole for nearly 300 others who were approved for release by the board. Nearly 600 women are in California prisons for killing or helping kill their abusers, according to Free Battered Women.
Supporters of prisoners fought Davis all the way to the state Supreme Court, arguing that he had a blanket policy of denying any murderers parole and wouldn't considering a case on its individual merit. The court sided with Davis in 2002, ruling the governor has broad authority to deny parole in murder cases.
Schwarzenegger's aides announced in November that the new governor planned to go along with most of the nine-member Board of Prison Term's decisions, except in cases of clear error. But his decisions thus far suggest otherwise. He overruled the parole board's decision to free 11 prisoners, including the cases of Valere Boyd, a woman who beat her child to death while intoxicated and a man who killed a woman while driving drunk, according to the Board of Prison Terms.
Lawyers for battered women in California prisons said Schwarzenegger is, like Davis, being extremely cautious about who gets paroled.
"Granted, he is releasing more people than Davis did," Wang said. "But it's certainly not the case that he's only vetoing cases where there is clear error by the parole board."
During his new budget unveiling two weeks ago, Schwarzenegger defended his recent decisions to free some prisoners, denying they were linked to a plan to reign in a $15 billion budget deficit by changing parole policies.
"We're not releasing anyone in order to save money," he told reporters. "We're not doing it for budget reasons."
Suarez, whose release date was moved up by Schwarzenegger, had a particularly compelling case for release. At age 16, she was sold for $200 to a 68-year-old man in Los Angeles named Anselmo Covarrubias, who raped her repeatedly and threatened to kill her family. A neighbor beat Covarrubias to death with a wooden table leg five years later, in 1981. Suarez hid the table leg and received a first-degree murder sentence of 25 years to life. State Parole Board Commissioner Al Angele in July 2002 said there was not enough evidence to support her conviction.
Munoz, a model prisoner, also drew supporters. A mother of three, she shot to death her husband's lover Julia De La Cruz and injured the couple's 14-month-old daughter in 1987. She said in her defense that she aimed to kill her husband Felix and stopped shooting immediately after realizing she hit De La Cruz and the baby.
For 14 years, Munoz said, Felix verbally and physically abused her and forced her to work 15-hour days at a clothing factory to support De La Cruz and himself. An undocumented worker, Munoz left her husband shortly before the murder and went to a battered women's shelter, but the shelter turned her away, she said, because it could not accept illegal immigrants.
Munoz was sentenced to 15 years in prison for De La Cruz's murder and after serving all 15 years was approved for parole, but Davis turned her down.
Wang said she believes that the two women's immigration status played a role in the decision to release them because their imminent deportation means they would pose no threat to U.S. public safety.
"It's not as politically controversial," she said. "It's out of sight, out of mind."
Patricia Valencia, Suarez's niece, said the parole is a "double-edged sword" because it does not give attorneys time to prepare a case that would seek to clear Suarez's record. Instead Suarez will ask the Immigration and Naturalization Service to consider that her rehabilitation includes being near her family, all legal residents of this country. Suarez originally came to the United States as a legal immigrant.
"We're asking for special consideration," Valencia said. "It's something she's never had."
Rebecca Vesely is a journalist in San Francisco.
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