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Battered Wife Will Get Parole in Murder

Prisons: Davis agrees for just the second time to free a killer. Woman shot her husband in 1985.

April 11, 2002|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis agreed Wednesday to grant parole to a woman who said she killed her husband because he abused her--only the second time in 84 cases that Davis has moved to let a convicted murderer go free from prison.

The decision means Cheryl Sellers, 43, will be released from the California Institution for Women in Corona in September 2003, the date set by the state Board of Prison Terms. Advocates, who had mobilized across the state on Sellers' behalf, said they hoped Davis' decision would pave the way to free other inmates who killed their batterers.

Sellers was granted parole in December by the parole board, which concluded that battered woman syndrome drove her to kill Norman Sellers 19 years ago. Under the law, her case went to Davis, who had the power to block her release--as he has done in 83 of 84 murder cases he has reviewed as governor.

In this case, Davis said that although Sellers "committed a grave crime," she killed her husband "in reaction to the abuse and threats."

Moreover, he said, the law did not allow testimony on battered woman syndrome at the time of Sellers' trial, meaning the jury heard no such evidence.

"The [parole board] determined Ms. Sellers would pose a low degree of risk to public safety," Davis said in a statement. "Indeed, prior to the life crime she had no criminal history. . . . She now accepts responsibility for what she did and expresses remorse."

In considering Sellers' parole, Davis faced a delicate political quandary, caught between those who advocate a tough-on-crime stance and women's groups that pressed for parole.

Many groups lobbied for Sellers' release, among them the Legislature's women's caucus and influential feminists. They argued that battered woman syndrome drove Sellers to kill, that she had been an exemplary prisoner, and that she had served enough time for the crime.

"Davis had these two large support groups opposing each other: the keep-everyone-in-prison group and the women," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento.

Davis Denies Parole for Another Woman

Sellers' supporters were gratified by the decision. "We're extremely pleased," said Carrie Hempel, an attorney for Sellers. "There was substantial evidence that she was battered by her husband. . . . It's the right decision."

But the prosecutor in the case, Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Catalano, disagreed. Catalano said that at the time of the crime, Sellers denied she had been beaten by her husband.

"This guy may not have been the world's best person. I don't know," Catalano said in an interview Wednesday. "But he did not abuse her. And he certainly didn't deserve to be shot."

While he approved Sellers' release, the governor denied parole for another battered woman inmate, Valere Boyd, 41, who shot and killed her husband, Kermit Boyd, in Riverside County in 1985.

Still, Sellers' case had attracted the most attention, and some legislators cheered the news that she would be freed.

Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier), chairwoman of the Legislature's women's caucus, stood outside the governor's office awaiting word on Sellers' fate Wednesday evening. When she heard the news, she declared herself thrilled.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), who for years has urged the early release of battered women inmates, said he hoped Davis' action is "a harbinger of things to come for the many abused women who are still awaiting a day of freedom."

Sellers was convicted in 1985 of first-degree murder for shooting her husband two years earlier as he lay in bed in their San Gabriel home. She was sentenced to 25 years to life, with the chance of parole no earlier than September 2000.

At her December parole hearing, commissioners concluded that battered woman syndrome drove Sellers to commit the crime. Their decision was based on a parole board investigation that found she exhibited evidence of "psychological, physical, sexual, economic and social [abuse] through the victim's domination and control over her."

Sellers told the commissioners that the abuse began on her wedding night and continued throughout their four-year marriage. On one occasion, she said, her husband shot her in the leg and refused to permit her to seek medical attention. Another time, she said, he kicked her repeatedly in the stomach, causing her to miscarry.

Sellers shot her husband in the head, she told the board, after he threatened to kill her young daughter and make her watch.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Catalano, however, disputed that account and said Sellers had previously denied suffering physical abuse. She said the only mental abuse Sellers mentioned was her husband's habit of saying his former girlfriends were superior to her.

"Personally, I thought her motive had to do with her losing her meal ticket," Catalano said. "He had told her he wanted a divorce. . . . She may very well have battered woman syndrome, but not as a result of this man's actions."

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