BALTIMORE — With the political pounding William D. Schaefer has absorbed since granting clemency to eight battered women who killed or assaulted their mates, other U.S. governors probably are wondering: Is it worth it?
But critics of the Maryland governor say a better question may be: Do I know enough about these women's cases to release them from prison?
In fact, the experience of Schaefer and former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste has forced activists to reassess how they go about seeking group clemencies for abused women. Sue Osthoff, director of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women, said her group is organizing a spring meeting of advocates to "talk about what went wrong and what we should be doing next."
"It's not a simple process getting these clemencies," said Osthoff. "And we've learned a lot. I do not see it as the role of the governor to retry these cases. But if it's helpful to get extra information or if it's politically valuable to get prosecutors involved in the process, and if all of this protects women from having to be left out on the limb in the press, then we have to try it all."
Schaefer and those who helped him review the clemencies have been accused--by local newspapers, prosecutors and even other battered women inside a Maryland prison--of doing a sloppy job. These critics have charged that the governor did not know the complete stories of three of the eight women: One woman was allegedly prone to violence; another earned insurance money from her husband's death; for the third, evidence to corroborate her abuse was in question.
Schaefer and his staff have defended the commutations and the review process. The House of Ruth, the Baltimore advocacy group for battered women that requested the clemencies, said the newspaper reports and prosecutors who fueled them had misconceived the larger point of the clemencies: They were not to eradicate guilt, rather to grant mercy because of special circumstances.
Yet Celeste, who weathered similar public scrutiny last year when he became the first governor to grant clemency to a group of battered women in Ohio, said the Maryland backlash could have been predicted.
"You can do all types of things to blunt criticism," said Celeste. "You can talk to prosecutors; you can go through lengthy reviews. I personally spent a half hour talking to each woman who we granted clemency to. But you're still going to get raked over the coals."
Celeste granted clemency to 26 women last December, a month before he left office. "The problem is these are never easy cases; these women come from complicated backgrounds that are not always pretty," he said. "Sometimes you have to do what's right."
That's not always easy.
The main problem, clemency advocates say, is that judges in 37 states are not required to consider evidence of spousal abuse during trial. In California and New York, among other states, the trend is toward allowing such evidence. But most state courts rarely hear the long history of battering these women allegedly endured before killing their spouses.
In Maryland, for example, the law has defined self-defense as occurring only during or at the point of an attack that is deemed murderous. Therefore, if a battered woman was classified as an "aggressor," she was banned from using expert testimony about her abuse. (A bill to change that law passed the Maryland legislature earlier this month and awaits the governor's signature. It would allow judges to consider evidence of repeated physical and psychological abuse when spouses plead self-defense to charges of murder or attempted murder.)
Experts on "battered-woman syndrome" describe a cycle of violence that destroys the woman's self-esteem, leaves her feeling powerless to escape her mate and eventually pushes her to respond violently.
In several of the Maryland women's cases, they were so ensnared by abusive relationships-- and so guilt-ridden--that they wouldn't have allowed their attorneys to introduce evidence of their abuse if state law had allowed it.
Between 800 and 1,000 women kill allegedly abusive husbands every year and less than one-third are acquitted, according to Osthoff, whose Philadelphia-based group provides assistance to battered women charged with crimes.
Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) has tried for years to get Congressional attention on the issue. Last month, she introduced legislation that would encourage states to change their laws, and would fund judicial and police education programs on battered-women syndrome.
"This bill would show the 'sense of Congress,' but we need the states and the governors to take action," said Morella.