Gov. William Donald Schaefer met yesterday with a group of battered women imprisoned for killing or assaulting their mates, and emerged saying he likely will push for new laws allowing evidence of abuse to be considered in criminal trials.
"You read a newspaper: 'Mary Jones shot her husband.' When you see Mary Jones and understand how she got there, it is a little different," Schaefer said.
The governor stopped short of pledging to commute the sentences of any of the five women he and other officials interviewed at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women in Jessup. Clemency or some sort of conditional pardon had been the hope of battered women's advocates who had given the governor the names of about a dozen women whose crimes have been linked to their abuse.
"Our hope is that these women will be released," said Regina Hollins, an attorney for the House of Ruth, a shelter and advocacy group for battered women.
Schaefer said he was moved by the women's stories and thinks that the "battered woman syndrome" is not being given enough attention by the criminal justice system.
During the 90-minute meeting, Schaefer said, he heard "stories of a lack of self-esteem, abuse, hoping things get better, things don't get better, and finally a point where the women break."
The meeting was arranged at the behest of Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), who has pushed federal legislation dealing with domestic violence and had visited earlier with members of a group of about 25 women at the prison who say abuse led them to commit their crimes.
Nationally, advocates for battered women are pushing for courts to treat abused women more leniently in deciding guilt or imposing sentence. Fifteen states allow judges and juries to weigh evidence of abuse, which advocates say can show that the woman acted out of fear or desperation.
"The woman knows the cycle and knows she cannot defend herself when the man is at the height of his battering" and so waits for an opportunity to attack, said Kathy Shulman, director of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore. "Instead of seeing the full picture, the court narrows it and sees the woman as the aggressor. That's not to say the women should be free, but their sentences should reflect the whole picture."
After Ohio established the battered woman syndrome as a criminal defense, outgoing Gov. Richard F. Celeste (D) in December commuted the sentences of 25 women who were victims of abuse. Washington Gov. Booth Gardner (D) has been asked to review the cases of 65 abused women for possible commutation.
Schaefer would not go as far as Celeste, but said Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Bishop L. Robinson will review parole statutes and see whether evidence of abuse is given appropriate weight in parole decisions.
Robinson, however, said he wants to see more evidence before concluding that abuse should be a factor in deciding a woman's guilt or punishment.
"Courts have found some of these individuals guilty of murder in the first degree," Robinson said. "Whether or not the battered women syndrome would have changed that, I don't know."