The Last Hope

A new law gives one more chance at freedom to abused women sent to prison for killing their batterers

Olivia Wang sits at a computer in her cramped office on McAllister Street, surrounded by five cardboard boxes. The boxes are nondescript, holding bulging folders of ordinary-looking legal documents. But to San Francisco attorney Wang, these papers are precious relics of California's vocal and optimistic clemency movement for battered women in the early 1990s.

Wang selects a thick file from a box at her feet and flips through it carefully, handling its pages and reading passages from it as if it were an antique, first-edition novel. Like the dozens of other files around her, the sheaf of legal documents presents the vivid, violent story of an abused woman who was sent to prison after killing her batterer. The file is her petition for clemency from the governor.

"Look at the thickness," Wang says, holding up a 2-inch-wide file. "And it probably just sat on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk. I wonder if it was ever read."

The boxes collected dust in storage for years, after the clemency battle largely failed. But three months ago, Wang hauled the boxes back to her office, partially in anticipation of a new law that will give these women one last grasp at freedom.

In the decade that has passed since they sought clemency, most of the original petitioners have remained in prison, with no legal options left. But the new state law that took effect earlier this month will give the estimated hundreds of California women in this situation one final legal tool. The law says that women prosecuted before 1992 -- when evidence of domestic violence became admissible in trial -- can submit writs of habeas corpus on the grounds of "battered women's syndrome."

The law is considered an exciting development among advocates for battered women. But Wang knows that winning freedom for her clients is not a sure thing -- a bitter lesson she learned from the clemency fight 10 years ago.

In the early 1990s, advocates for survivors of domestic violence formed the California Coalition for Battered Women in Prison, with the hope of bringing public attention to what they saw as a grave injustice -- that women who had killed their batterers in self-defense were not allowed to mention their abuse in court. Some of those women were being thrown in prison for life.

The coalition was able to garner media coverage when it filed 34 clemency petitions with then-Gov. Pete Wilson, the only person with any power to change the terms of these women's sentences.

The women prisoners, some of whom had already been in prison for 10 years, beseeched the governor to consider their histories of domestic abuse and to commute or shorten their sentences.

The inmates' last hopes of freedom were asserted through the pages of their petitions -- in documentation of physical abuse, psychological evaluations, unblemished prison records, and letters from their mothers. Most attorneys who had worked on the cases were convinced that the women -- who had the most compelling stories the lawyers could find -- would be freed as a result.

Henrietta Margarita Briones was one of the original 34 petitioners. Briones had been convicted of second-degree murder for shooting her boyfriend to death in Southern California in January 1986.

In Briones' petition, which is among the files in Wang's office, she says she was beaten by her boyfriend, Larry Daniels, at least four times a week. Whenever she called the police, the officers would simply take Daniels to his mother's home only a few houses away. When he returned, he was livid, telling Briones that she would "pay" for what she had done. Then he would beat her with his fists or grab her by her shirt and slam her to the floor.

After about a year and a half, Briones tried to end the relationship. Daniels left the area for a while, returning in January 1986. When he discovered that Briones was dating someone else, Daniels became jealous, and began hitting Briones over the head with a glass bottle, threatening to kill her and her new boyfriend.

A few days after that incident, Daniels came to Briones' apartment again. He shoved his way in and hit her. He pulled out a pistol and told her he would come back later and kill her.

As Daniels left the apartment, Briones picked up a rifle that he had left behind long ago and followed him into the courtyard. According to the petition, "she wanted to show Daniels that she, too, had a weapon and to warn him not to return."

As Briones followed Daniels to his car, she called to him. Daniels swore back at her and began walking toward her. He pulled out his pistol and continued moving toward her. Briones lifted the rifle and pulled the trigger, shooting him in the chest -- a single shot through the heart.

After the shooting, Briones, who had no previous criminal history, went for help and waited until the police arrived. She admitted to the police that she had shot Daniels and was booked for murder.

Briones' petition asserts that she "did what any reasonable person fearing for their life would have done in a similar situation -- she protected herself."

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