Maria Suarez

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)–In a decision that could keep battered women who kill their abusers behind bars, the California Supreme Court on Monday reversed a lower court’s ruling that the governor had overstepped his bounds when he denied parole to model prisoners.

California is one of only three states where the governor has the authority to supersede a parole decision by the state Board of Prison Terms. The power was granted in 1988, whenCalifornia voters approved an amendment to
the state Constitution that gave the governor final say in releasing violent offenders.

In his four years as governor, Gray Davis has reversed more than 200 of the board’s decisions to free prisoners serving life sentences and has granted parole to only two killers–both battered women who murdered their abusers. Davis has reversed the parole recommendations of at least 11 battered women in prison for killing or conspiring to kill their abusers. Nearly 600 women are in California prisons for killing their alleged abusers.

In the test case of this parole-reversal policy before the state Supreme Court, a model prisoner named Robert Rosenkrantz was granted parole three years ago, but Davis reversed the decision. Rosenkrantz murdered a schoolmate, Steve Redman, 17 years ago after Redman revealed to others that Rosenkrantz was homosexual. Rosenkrantz, then 18, shot Redman 10 times with an Uzi submachine gun. He was convicted of second-degree murder in 1985 and sentenced to 17 years to life.

Now 35, Rosenkrantz has been a model prisoner at a medium-security prison in Southern California. He earned a college degree in computer science, counsels teens struggling with their sexuality and has a classification score of zero–the lowest possible score for security risks. The Board of Prison Terms deemed Rosenkrantz eligible for parole in 1999 after denying his parole three previous times.

Davis: “If You Take Someone’s Life, Forget It”

But that same year, Davis declared that no one who committed murder in California would ever go free.

“If you take someone’s life, forget it,” Davis told the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee in April 1999.

Rosenkrantz appealed, arguing that Davis does not take into consideration individual cases, but rather has a “blanket” policy denying parole to all prisoners convicted of murder. Last year, a Los Angeles superior court judge ruled in Rosenkrantz’s favor, stating that the governor’s record indicated a “prejudgment of all murder cases.” Davis appealed to the state Supreme Court.

In its decision reversing the lower court ruling, the California Supreme Court found that Davis’ parole of the two battered women who killed their abusers “is inconsistent with the conclusion that he adopted a blanket policy of denying parole to all murderers,” Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote in the 5-2 decision.

For the other battered women who are still in prison for killing or conspiring to kill their abusers and have been granted parole only to watch it be reversed by the governor, the Rosenkrantz decision is a decisive defeat.

“It’s very damaging,” says Olivia Wang, staff attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and coordinator for the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison. “This decision tells Davis that he can continue to interfere with the process of granting parole to prisoners who pose no threat to society.”

One State Law May Be Way out for Battered Women Who Kill

Maria Suarez is one such case. In 1976, at age 16, Suarez left rural Mexico and was sold for $200 to 68-year-old Anselmo Covarrubias, who took her to California and sexually and physically abused her. Suarez spoke no English and was essentially held captive for five years until a neighbor killed Covarrubias.

But Suarez’s ordeal was not over. The 21-year-old was charged with conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison in 1982. The Board of Prison Terms found Suarez suitable for parole in January 2002, but Davis reversed the decision in June.

Explaining his reversal, Davis said Suarez “acted not just because she was battered, but that she was motivated by jealousy, fear and greed.”

Advocates for Suarez say that at the time she was sentenced, expert testimony on domestic violence was not admissible in court and she had no where to turn.

“There were so few shelters and legal services available to abused women back then,” Wang says. “She had no criminal history and has had an amazing record in prison.”

However, a California law enacted in 2001 that allows prisoners who were convicted before evidence of abuse was admissible in court to appeal for a new trial does offer some hope. Marva Wallace was freed in October under the new law after spending 17 years in prison for killing her abusive husband. Davis had denied her parole two weeks before.

Davis, who was reelected to a second term in November, applauded the Rosenkrantz decision.

“The Constitution entrusts the governor with ultimate review of parole for those convicted of murder,” Davis said in a statement. “I take this responsibility very seriously and will continue to review each case thoroughly.”

Rebecca Vesely is the West Coast bureau chief for Women’s Enews.

For more information:

California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison:

Prison Law Office: