by Gloria Killian
Gloria Killian is a former prisoner whose conviction was overturned in March 2002 after sixteen years in prison. Since her release she has been a tireless advocate for her sisters inside and is currently working with Free Battered Women and the Action Committee for Women in Prison.
On Thursday, May 8, 2003, I had the pleasure of attending the Select Committee Hearing on Domestic Violence and the Habeas Project* with other members of the steering committee for Free Battered Women and many family members. The hearing was held to discuss the implementation of Penal Code 1473.5, the new habeas law designed to give relief to battered women in prison who defended themselves against their abusers before January 1, 1992.
The hearing room was packed and it was wonderful to see so many family members and supporters of imprisoned battered women coming together to provide input on this issue. All of the people who testified addressed very important points that needed to be raised and I felt that our concerns were really heard. Olivia Wang, Habeas Project coordinator, and former prisoner Susan Deering gave powerful testimony as did many others. The fact that Susan Deering was able to attend the hearing as a woman who had been freed in December 2002 by the habeas legislation had a strong emotional impact on everyone. Testimony focused on support for SB 784 sponsored by Betty Karnette which would extend the sunset date of the law from January 2005 to January 2010 which is critical in order to allow enough time for attorneys to file petititions for the women. Other limitations of the current law were also addressed: only pre-1992 cases are eligible for relief; the conviction can only involve 1st or 2nd degree murder; and the homicide victim can only be the abuser.
Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn chaired the hearing and she was very open about her own childhood experiences in a violent household…in other words she gets it! The Assemblywoman used her personal experiences of domestic violence to raise pointed questions with the Board of Prison Terms’ investigative unit about the issues of documentation, police reports, and other types of evidence that so many battered women cannot produce in support of their petitions because everyone was too afraid to call for help. Warden John Dovey from CIW was also questioned about obstacles to the law’s implementation.
Of course nothing was actually resolved at the Hearing, and in fact, Select Committees in the Legislature do not generate legislation. But the important thing is that the issues were heard. Senators Betty Karnette and Nell Soto also attended the hearing briefly, and many legislative staffers watched the hearing on closed circuit TV or would view the tapes later. Assemblywoman Cohn assured everyone at the Hearing that she did not intend to let the matter end, and I personally was reassured by her commitment to imprisoned battered women and the continued viability of the habeas project. Like every legislative action, it takes time amd commitment and we have both of those. We are united in this struggle and I believe that we will eventually win some changes in the habeas statute that will broaden its impact to include many women who are now excluded by its terms.
* The Habeas Project is a collaboration of Free Battered Women, The California Women’s Law Center, USC Law School’s Post Conviction Justice Project and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children.