Cheryl Sellers

LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–The recent parole of Cheryl Sellers, imprisoned for 17 years at the California Institution for Women after killing her abusive husband, has once again cast the spotlight on the issue of clemency for battered women.

Gov. Gray Davis commuted Sellers’ 25-to-life sentence last month and granted her parole, stating that Sellers poses a low risk to society because she killed her husband in reaction to his abuse and threats. She will complete her parole in September 2003.

Prisoners may request clemency if they believe they were convicted in error. Governors may either commute, or reduce, the sentence of a convicted person, or issue a pardon when justice and mercy dictate that a prisoner should be forgiven or granted an early release.

Sellers was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting her husband in 1983 as he lay in bed at home. The physical, sexual and psychological abuse started on her wedding night and continued for more than four years. Her husband had threatened to kidnap her daughter and to kill the baby while forcing her to watch.

Numbers vary on how many abused women have received clemency over the years. According to the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, at least 124 women from 23 states have been freed since 1978, many of them in the early 1990s when there were several mass clemency actions. Estimates of the number of women in prison for murdering their abusers varies from 800 to 4,000, according Elizabeth Leonard, a sociology professor at Vanguard University in California.

 Olivia Wang

“It’s remarkable that Cheryl is being released,” says attorney Olivia Wang, coordinator for the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison. After the initial burst of public attention and clemency grants in the early 1990s, the movement to release battered women from prison has lost momentum and few women have been freed in recent years.

Wang adds she hopes Sellers’ case is an indication that more clemency cases will be looked at closely and acted upon quickly.

California Leads the New Movement

The renewed interest in clemency in California stems from two new state laws passed in the last two years.

One requires the state parole board to review petitions for clemency and determine at the time of a woman’s hearing if she was suffering from “battered women’s syndrome” when she committed the crime.

Battered women’s syndrome, defined in 1984 by psychotherapist Lenore Walker, is not a mental illness, but a theory that draws upon the principles of learned helplessness to explain why some women are unable to leave their abusers. The board must consider the syndrome as a mitigating factor when deciding on parole.

The other new law allows women prosecuted before 1992 to apply to reopen their cases if they believe they suffered from battered women’s syndrome at the time of the crime.

Thirty-six battered women’s cases were reviewed last year after the legislation went into effect; 14 women were found to have suffered from battered women’s syndrome by the state parole board, and eight of these women were recommended for parole in the last seven months.

Davis turned down three of the women and has so far approved only one, Cheryl Sellers. He is scheduled to decide on one case this month and two more should be addressed by July. A positive response from Davis on the remaining cases could give the movement the momentum it has needed to push forward.

Initial Burst of Interest in Battered Women’s Syndrome

Although battered women’s syndrome came into public consciousness and academic debate in the 1980s, the legal system in the United States was slower to accept the syndrome as a mitigating factor in murder cases. In the 1980s and early 1990s, testimony about the psychological circumstances of battered women’s lives was not considered admissible evidence in the courtroom and questions about the murder victim’s brutality and violence often were not allowed. Not knowing the full circumstances of the crime, juries often gave women who killed their spouses harsh sentences.

Attorneys and activists began working with convicted women to reduce or negate their sentences. Clemency began to be granted sporadically in the 1980s, and the movement peaked in 1990 when outgoing Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste freed 25 women, declaring they had not had the opportunity for fair trials because testimony about the violence in their homes was not presented during their trials.

The following year Gov. Donald Schaefer of Maryland commuted eight sentences. On Valentine’s Day 1992, eight petitions were submitted to Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, who eventually freed all but one. In California, 34 inmates filed petitions in 1992 asking then-Gov. Pete Wilson for clemency; three received it.

By 1995, 12 states had enacted statutes providing for the admissibility of expert testimony on battering and its effects.

In other states, advocates were disappointed with governmental response. Under a state resolution passed in 1991 in Texas, 144 domestic violence cases were picked for review; as of October 2000 all requests for clemency had been denied. After 26 inmates requested reviews in Arizona in 1996 and 1997, the governor commuted only one sentence. Since then, one other woman has been granted clemency.

Public Sympathy for Battered Women Faded in Late 1990s

Requests for clemency continued in the late 1990s but the results were less than encouraging. Albany Law School professor and attorney Mary A. Lynch, who represented women with clemency claims until 1997, thinks that the public attention and sympathy for battered women faded after the much-watched O.J. Simpson trial came to an end. In 1995, Simpson was acquitted of murdering his wife, whom he allegedly abused for many years.

Now “it’s simply harder for activists to demonstrate that the public cares tremendously about incarcerated battered women,” Lynch says.

Attempts to gain clemency for battered women in recent years have been frustrating, slow and discouraging, says Carol Jacobsen of the Battered Women’s Clemency Project, a nonprofit organization based in Michigan. Results vary from state to state, but nothing compares to the number of successful releases in the early 1990s.

In Florida, no domestic violence clemencies were granted after 1999. No battered women have been freed in New York since 1996. In May 2000, Gov. John Engler of Michigan denied eight petitions; there was no reason given.

Attorney Jennifer Lee Greenberg, who successfully represented 15 such women in Florida from 1997 to 1999, stopped working on behalf of these cases for two years because of lack of funding. She recently started filing petitions again as part of her advocacy work at the Florida Coalition against Domestic Violence.

“I’m filing cases again on a tiny grant because there has been no program or entity doing this work and it’s very difficult for an inmate to gather the necessary information without representation or resources,” she says.

A New Life for the Movement

Advocates are hopeful that Cheryl Sellers will be the new icon for a reemerging movement to release women who have suffered from “battering and its effects,” the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women preferred terminology instead of “battered women’s syndrome,” a phrase they say may stigmatize defendants.

What happens in the next few months is the million-dollar question facing clemency advocates, according to the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison. Davis is considering the four remaining petitions before him. Wang and other lawyers and activists are encouraging him to review the cases soon and follow the board’s recommendations for parole.

Activists are also pursuing other legal strategies. Wang and others are educating the public on the legal and emotional issues facing battered women, making media appearances and pursuing projects like the battered women’s survivor quilt, a collaborative quilt that will be made by domestic abuse survivors in California state prisons. And the coalition is encouraging California women who were convicted of murdering their batterers prior to 1992 to submit petitions under the new state law.

“What happens here could have real effects in other states,” Wang says.

Pamela Burke is a television producer and freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

For more information:

Battered Women’s Syndrome: A Survey of Contemporary Theories:

California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison

Violence Against Women Online Resources