From 2002 – 2012, the California Habeas Project secured the release of 42 women prisoners convicted for killing their domestic violence abusers in self-defense.
The origins of the Habeas Project date back to 1989, when a group of women at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in Corona – then the only women’s prison in California – founded Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA), the first prisoner-led support group for battered women in the country. These women recognized a shared experience of abuse, knew that the abuse led directly or indirectly to their incarceration, and wanted to find ways to help each other heal from the trauma that they had experienced.
In 1991, the members of CWAA watched as governors in two other states granted clemency to women like them – women who had killed abusive partners. The group wrote a letter to then-Governor Pete Wilson, asking for clemency on the basis that their sentences were too long in light of the abuse they had suffered. 34 women signed the letter. Outside advocates in the anti-domestic violence movement heard about CWAA’s efforts and began organizing to help each woman file an individual clemency petition, giving details and evidence about the abuse she experienced and its relevance to her criminal conviction.
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children was one of the organizations that got involved. A new organization – the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison (CCBWP) – formed to support the efforts of the incarcerated women and their legal teams. CCBWP later became Free Battered Women, an organization dedicated to freeing incarcerated survivors of domestic violence. Free Battered Women is now a project of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners.
Clemency is an executive remedy that is entirely at the discretion of the Governor. It can include full pardon, release, or just a commutation of sentence (such as life-without-the-possibility-of-parole to life-with-the-possibility-of-parole). The Governor granted three petitions, including one to a terminally ill woman who died two days after her release, and one to a woman whose sentence he reduced from 25-years-to-life to 20-years-to-life. The others he either denied or did not respond to. Survivors and their advocates saw that in California, with its tough-on-crime environment, clemency was not a real option for securing survivors’ freedom. They began pushing for legislative change to give these women an opportunity to get back in front of a court and tell their full stories.
Incarcerated women succeeded in attracting the attention of state legislators. The Legislative Women’s Caucus and the Assembly Public Safety Committee held legislative hearings at CIW in September 1991, listening for 4 hours to the testimony of 8 women who had killed their abusive partners. That same year, the California legislature passed Evidence Code §1107, which for the first time made expert testimony on intimate partner battering and its effects (which at the time was referred to as “Battered Woman’s Syndrome”) admissible in criminal trials.
The women of CWAA realized that expert testimony could have made a huge difference in their own cases – had an expert educated the judge and the jury about domestic violence, these women may never have been convicted, or may have been convicted of lesser offenses. But, §1107 made no provision for retroactive application to women who were convicted before it became effective. In response, survivors and their advocates began to push for a law that would allow these women to go back to court and explain the context in which the offense took place.
Between 1993 and 2001, California legislators introduced five bills, each of which would have secured some kind of judicial relief for battered women in prison. Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), the California Women’s Law Center (CWLC), the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison (CCBWP), and the University of Southern California’s Post-Conviction Justice Project (USC PCJP) were all involved in these legislative efforts. In 2001, the legislature passed the fifth bill – SB 799, authored by Senator Betty Karnette. The bill gave battered women who had been convicted of the murder of their abusive partners before 1992 the opportunity to go back to court if they had not had expert testimony on domestic violence during their original trial court proceedings and it seemed reasonable that such testimony would have made a difference in the outcome of the case. SB 799 created Penal Code §1473.5, which went into effect in 2002.
SB 799 did not, however, provide an implementation method for §1473.5 – no one to tell survivors that the law now existed, figure out who might be eligible for relief, and no money to hire attorneys or pay for expert witnesses. Given this oversight, in 2002, LSPC, CWLC, USC PCJP, and CCBWP (now reconstituted as Free Battered Women) launched the Habeas Project to inform incarcerated survivors about the law, screen them for eligibility, and recruit, train, and support volunteer attorneys to represent these domestic violence survivors. Throughout the spring and fall of 2003, the Habeas Project made presentations about §1473.5 to almost 200 incarcerated women, and then screened almost 150 women for eligibility, through mail-in questionnaires and in-person interviews. As a result of these efforts, in 2003, the Habeas Project identified 41 battered women who appeared eligible for relief under §1473.5 and found attorneys to represent them. USC PCJP represented some of the women, and solo practitioners, attorneys at non-profit organizations, and attorneys at large law firms represented others.
As the Habeas Project screened women for eligibility, advocates met dozens of women whose convictions were directly related to domestic violence, but who did not fall within the narrow criteria of §1473.5. In 2004, the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office joined the Habeas Project, and together, all of the collaborators pushed the legislature to expand §1473.5. The legislature enacted SB 1385, authored by Senator John Burton. SB 1385 allowed battered women convicted of any violent felony that occurred before August 29, 1996 to petition the court for relief if they did not have expert testimony on battering and its effects during their original trial court proceedings and it seemed reasonable that such testimony would have made a difference in the outcome of the case.
The new law went into effect in 2005, and the Habeas Project identified another 60 or so survivors who we believed qualified for relief. The Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office began representing battered women who had been their clients during the original trial proceedings, and the USC PCJP took on additional clients. The Habeas Project also recruited more pro-bono attorneys to represent incarcerated survivors.
LSPC closed the Habeas Project in 2012, after securing the release of over 40 women. For more information about project successes, click here.
Our collaborators include: