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Battered Women's Law OKd

Schwarzenegger signs bill giving more inmates the ability to challenge their sentences using proof that they were coerced by their abusers.

September 18, 2004|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Battered women who can prove their abusers coerced them into committing violent crimes will have a chance to win release under legislation signed Friday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The law, which advocates said is unique in the country, is the latest expansion of California's 1992 law allowing battered women's syndrome to be introduced as a defense in trials. That law did not apply retroactively, and activists for domestic violence victims spent the next decade fighting for the option of new trials for women incarcerated before battered women's syndrome was a legal defense.

In 2002, the Legislature gave that opportunity to women convicted of killing their abusers. But it did not apply to women who tried to kill their abusers but failed. The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, will allow similar opportunities to women convicted before Aug. 29, 1996, for attempted murder or for engaging in a felony crime as a partner of their abuser -- so long as they can show the domestic violence victim was coerced into committing a crime.

"This issue of battered women serving time is a nationwide phenomenon, but each state has different ways of dealing" with it, said Olivia Wang, an attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco. "In some states you have a chance theoretically of getting clemency from the governor, but nothing as wide in scope as SB 1385, because the issue elsewhere is defined narrowly as just women who killed their abusive husbands."

It is not known how many prisoners the law will affect. Kimberly Wong, the legislative and criminal justice policy advisor for the Los Angeles County public defender's office, said advocates planned to canvass the prisons to determine which inmates might merit having their cases reviewed. At a minimum, those affected by the law have already served eight years in prison.

Cheryl Sellers of Pasadena, who killed her abusive husband in 1983 and was released from prison last year, said she met dozens of women during her time behind bars who might be able to seek release through SB 1385, which was sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco).

"This opens the door wider," Sellers said. "It's not just for women who killed their husband. It's for 'you shot your boyfriend' or you were involved in a crime because of the abuse. Some were just there when their significant other committed a crime. This helps them."

Under the new law, the inmates still must show with "reasonable probability" how their legal defense would have been bolstered by evidence of battering. That will allow them to get a new trial where an expert on domestic violence could testify, although defense lawyers said it would be likely that prosecutors would cut a deal to lower the sentence to time served. In addition, the judge would have wide discretion and could simply dismiss the new charges.

The law also applies to men, although experts believe that most prisoners affected are women. It also allows those who killed their spouses between 1992, when California passed its battered defense law, and Aug. 29, 1996, when the state Supreme Court ratified it, to seek new trials.

And the bill replaces language in the state's penal code about "battered women's syndrome" with "intimate partner battering and its effects." The notion of a syndrome has fallen into disfavor among abuse victims activists, who say it wrongly suggests a common set of responses that all women develop when they are battered.

During the legislative session, the idea of expanding those who could seek new trials initially had been opposed by the state's district attorneys association, but sponsors of the measure say they worked together to fashion an acceptable compromise.

Releases are unlikely to occur immediately. As of last month, only seven people have been let out of jail as a result of the 2002 law change, according to the California Habeas Project, a coalition of pro bono attorneys, domestic violence experts and other advocates created that year to try to free battered women. The group has represented 40 inmates so far.

Also Friday, Schwarzenegger signed legislation prohibiting boaters from running their crafts when anyone was swimming or playing in the back, near operating engines. The law, the first of its kind in the country, is intended to prevent swimmers from being poisoned by the carbon monoxide those engines emit.

The office of Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), the sponsor of AB 2222, said 111 people around the country have been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning near boats in recent years.

The bill is one of a number of measures prompted by incidents that came to the attention of lawmakers.

Koretz named the law the Anthony Farr and Stacy Beckett Safe Boating Act of 2004, in memory of 11-year-old Anthony Farr of El Dorado Hills and 15-year-old Stacy Beckett of Chino, both of whom died "teak surfing," a relatively new sport in which swimmers hold on to the wooden platforms at the back of boats and then body surf the wake.

The bill requires state officials to distribute warning information to boaters when they renew their licenses. All new or used boats sold must include warning stickers. Those who allow swimmers near the motors would be guilty of an infraction.

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