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Panel Urges Release of Convicted Murderer

Parole unit says it found no evidence that the woman plotted the 1981 slaying of her abuser. Davis rejected freedom for her in June.

November 08, 2002|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A state parole panel Thursday said a battered woman from Azusa imprisoned in the killing of her abuser 21 years ago is not a danger to society and deserves to be freed.

If the decision survives an internal review by the Board of Prison Terms, as expected, inmate Maria Suarez will find her fate in the hands of Gov. Gray Davis -- who has already rejected her parole once.

Suarez suffered "an extreme amount of abuse" during her five-year relationship with Anselmo Covarrubias, including violent rapes and beatings, parole Commissioner Al Angele said after a hearing at the women's prison in Corona.

Angele said that despite such abuse and Suarez's conviction for first-degree murder, the parole board had found no evidence that she conspired to have Covarrubias killed.

The panel's action marks the second time that Suarez, 42, has been cleared for release by parole commissioners who found she suffered from battered women's syndrome at the time of the crime.

Davis reversed the first parole grant in June. While conceding that Suarez had been abused, he said there were conflicting reports about whether she had solicited the murder.

On Thursday, a Davis spokesman said that, in denying Suarez parole, the governor had also asked the board to investigate and clarify inconsistencies about her role in the crime.

"Clearly, this was a parole matter that the governor thought warranted additional review," deputy press secretary Byron Tucker said. "When the case is forwarded to him this time, he will look at the new data and make an informed decision."

After the hearing, Suarez expressed gratitude and said her main goal was to be reunited with her family, a parole board spokesman said.

"She said she could not even describe how happy she was, and that the most difficult part had been knowing how much hurt this had caused her mother," spokesman Bill Sessa said.

A handful of Suarez's relatives -- including her mother and sisters -- gathered outside the California Institution for Women during the hearing, holding a banner that read, "Justice for Maria."

Suarez's niece Patricia Valencia of Los Angeles said in an interview that family members are "very, very hopeful that this time we may truly be close to freedom."

Suarez's case is one of dozens being reevaluated by the parole board under a relatively new state law. The law requires that certain murder cases be reviewed to see whether battered women's syndrome may have played a role in the crime -- and whether, as a result, parole for the convict is deserved.

Suarez was 16 when she moved north from Mexico to live with a sister in Duarte. While walking in her neighborhood a few months later, Suarez was approached by a woman who offered her work as a housekeeper. She wound up in the home of Covarrubias, who allegedly paid a $200 "finder's fee" for her.

Covarrubias was believed by neighbors to be a brujo, or warlock, and over the next five years, he raped, beat and emotionally abused Suarez, according to parole board investigators. Reared in a rural part of Mexico where superstition held sway, Suarez believed Covarrubias when he threatened to use witchcraft to kill her family if she told them about the abuse, investigators say.

At the time of her arrest, authorities said Suarez conspired with a neighbor, Rene Soto, who killed Covarrubias in August 1981 by hitting him with a wooden table leg. Soto and Suarez, who washed and hid the weapon, were convicted of first-degree murder.

Soto and his wife initially implicated Suarez in the crime, but more recently told investigators she was not involved. Soto's Spanish-speaking wife said she thought a translation error had mistakenly led authorities to believe she had told them Suarez was involved.

Investigators for the parole board said Suarez's actions stemmed from her status as a battered woman. Testimony about battered women's syndrome was not presented at her trial, because such input was not allowed in court until 1992.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office opposed parole, arguing that Suarez had conspired to murder Covarrubias and had not adequately accepted responsibility for the crime.

Among Suarez's supporters are the now-retired sheriff's homicide detective who arrested her, and her former attorney, who was later disbarred and says he botched the case and has been haunted by it for 20 years.

The Board of Prison Terms, appointed by the governor, has approved parole for 150 convicted murderers since Davis was first elected. Davis has approved freedom for two, both battered women who killed their abusers.

Tucker said the governor would continue to make public safety his foremost goal in evaluating which murder convicts are rehabilitated and should go free. Political analysts said Davis might soften up a bit on parole in his second term.

"He says he's not running for president, which means he's no longer seeking endorsements and funds from police groups," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. "So one would hope he would look at these cases on an individual basis and make a humane judgment."

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