Demonstrators rallied in four California cities Tuesday to protest Gov. Gray Davis' rejection of parole for many battered women who killed their abusers.
The protesters accused the governor of playing politics with the lives of the inmates, who have been judged rehabilitated and approved for release by the state parole board, whose members were appointed by Davis.
"It's a travesty of justice," said Diana Block, who took part in the Sacramento rally and represents the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison. "Any objective person who looked at these women's records would agree they deserve to be freed."
Critics say Davis, who is running for reelection, refuses to release eligible convicts because he fears that a parolee might commit a new crime and wind up in a campaign ad against him.
But Byron Tucker, Davis' press secretary, disputed that characterization, saying the governor acts with public safety--not politics--in mind.
"The governor evaluates each case individually and on its merits," Tucker said. "He gives all of these cases a painstaking review. Some of them meet his criteria, and some of these people are not deserving of parole."
Shortly after taking office, Davis seemed to signal his intention with regard to parole for convicted murderers, saying: "If you take someone else's life, forget it."
His staff insists that the statement was political hyperbole. But critics say the governor's record proves he meant what he said.
Since Davis took office, the state Board of Prison Terms has recommended freedom for 123 convicted murderers. Davis has approved parole for two--both of them battered women imprisoned for killing their abusers. He has rejected parole for nine other women who the board concluded committed their crimes because they were being battered.
That overall record makes Davis, a Democrat, far less forgiving than his GOP predecessor, Pete Wilson. In Wilson's final three years in office, he allowed more than two dozen convicted murderers to go free on parole.
Tuesday's rallies reflect the criticism that Davis has faced on a number of fronts regarding his parole decisions--especially those that involve battered women. The Legislature's women's caucus, for example, has become increasingly active on the issue, lobbying Davis on behalf of several women whose cases were before him.
Pressure is coming from the courts as well. In a string of decisions upholding inmates' legal challenges, judges have rebuked Davis, suggesting that he follows a blanket, illegal policy against parole rather than assessing the facts of each case.
Two cases, both involving Los Angeles-area men serving terms for second-degree murder, are before the state Supreme Court. Oral arguments in those cases, which may decide the extent of the governor's authority over parole, is expected next month.
In addition to Sacramento, rallies were held in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.
The largest was in San Francisco, where about 100 people--including relatives of incarcerated women--gave speeches and marched with signs on a downtown sidewalk.
In Los Angeles, about 60 protesters paraded on Spring Street near the state office building for an hour before a small delegation went inside to meet with the governor's staff.
Those demonstrators, who delivered hundreds of letters urging Davis to free the battered women, included Rose Ann Parker, one of the two convicted killers the governor has released.
In freeing Parker, Davis concluded that she acted out of fear for her life and was a victim of battered women's syndrome when she killed her ex-boyfriend in 1986.
The other woman cleared for parole by the governor was Cheryl Sellers. Davis said that although she committed a grave crime when she killed her husband as he lay in bed one night in 1983, she acted in reaction to abuse and threats.
Organizers of the rallies said there are dozens of other female prisoners were victims of abuse before committing their crimes. Earlier this month, Davis rejected parole for two women--Mary Ramp and Flozelle Woodmore--who had been found to be victims of battered women's syndrome and judged deserving of release by the parole board.
One prisoner deserving freedom, protesters say, is Henrietta Briones, 42, who killed her abusive boyfriend in 1986. The parole board found her to be a victim of battered women's syndrome and approved her release. But Davis reversed that decision earlier this year, saying she remained a threat to society.