An abused woman who has served almost two decades in state prison for killing her husband was released from custody Friday by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge who ruled that the outcome of her 1985 trial would likely have been different if evidence of battered women's syndrome had been allowed in her defense.
Marva Wallace, 44, a mother of two, is believed to be the first inmate released under a new California law that allows inmates to file habeas corpus petitions in cases in which evidence of battered women's syndrome was not permitted at trial.
Two weeks ago, Gov. Gray Davis denied Wallace parole, reversing a recommendation of the state Board of Prison Terms.
Wallace, a high school graduate who had no previous criminal record, was set free at 4:30 p.m. after the state Department of Corrections received notice of the decision. Wallace, who could still face a new trial, is due back in court Monday.
Judge David S. Wesley overturned the murder conviction, saying Wallace had clearly been a battered woman and had been convicted at a time when very little was known about domestic violence.
"I am going to order a new trial in this case, and I am going to release the defendant on her own recognizance," he said.
Wallace, who had served more than 17 years in prison, began crying when the judge announced his ruling.
Several family members and friends, seated in the otherwise largely empty Los Angeles courtroom, applauded and let out a cheer.
"My heart is about to burst," Wallace's mother, Deloris Wallace, said outside the courtroom afterward. "I am just so happy. I've been praying and praying for this day."
Wallace's 25-year-old son, Jessie Martin, said, "Finally, a mom. You know, a grandma will take care of you. But it ain't like mom."
Greeted by Family
Several hours later, wearing an olive green blazer and matching skirt with white high-heel shoes, Wallace was released from Wesley's courtroom. Family members, a preacher and a friend greeted her tearfully.
Outside the courtroom, her sister, Ruby, 38, ran and hugged her. Wallace let out a scream of joy as she walked out of the courthouse and into the parking lot.
"Thank God," Wallace said as she caught her breath to stop crying and held hands with her mother and sister. "I'm just happy to be with my family."
Her mother said she had planned a party and prepared her daughter's favorite meal: fried chicken, cornbread and cabbage.
The state law, enacted in January, applies to women convicted before 1992, when California courts began allowing expert testimony about battered women's syndrome.
Attorneys critical of Davis' record of opposing parole of virtually all murderers see the law as an alternate route to freeing women like Wallace.
Davis Saw Risk
In overruling the recommendation for Wallace's parole, Davis said he had determined that her release "would create too great a risk of public safety."
On Friday, Davis spokesman Byron Tucker said that the governor believes that battered women's syndrome can be a legitimate defense, but that he had decided in the Wallace case that the trial court was in a better position than he was to make an evaluation.
Since becoming governor, Davis has paroled only two of 139 murderers whom the parole board has recommended for release.
"Women are not being released on parole," said Wallace's attorney, Michael Brennan. "The Legislature felt these women should have the opportunity to ask the court for relief. I'm very happy for Marva. She's been in custody much too long for what happened in this case."
"I'm speechless," said Olivia Wang, director of the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison. "It is so gratifying to see a judge recognize that battered woman syndrome was a factor in this case and do the right thing."
Wang said she hoped the ruling would improve prospects for other battered women convicted of killing their abusers and seeking release. So far this year, Davis has blocked the parole of eight such women in addition to Wallace; decisions on three more cases are pending.
Medical experts define battered women's syndrome as a behavioral condition that affects those who are systematically abused. The pattern of violence leaves women feeling powerless, so they tend to stay in abusive relationships and may ultimately see suicide or homicide as the only way out.
Marva Wallace's marriage lasted a year. Within two months, her husband, Glendell Boykin, started beating her, often leaving her bruised and bloodied, according to court papers.
Boykin would not let her work, refused to give her money to support her children and kept her isolated from her family. Boykin used crack cocaine regularly and had abused his first wife, court papers stated.
Wallace moved back to her mother's house in Los Angeles once, but returned to her husband in Long Beach when he promised not to beat her again. But she said the abuse didn't stop.