Fiona Ma for State Assembly
News

Acceptance Speech at the California Women’s Law Center’s Pursuit of Justice Awards

As Chair of the Domestic Violence Committee, my office hosted a screening of the documentary film "Sin By Silence" for legislators and staffers in March 2010. Given our busy schedules and our short 6 year time limit, we (as Betsy can attest) do not dare indulge ourselves to a 3 hour event: sitting through a long film, Q&A and reception so I made introductory remarks and left for another event that evening.

However my staff stayed and brought back the DVD for me to watch.  I watched it with other members of my staff and felt sad about the plight of these battered women in jail so I organized a screening at the annual Women in Government Conference the following January where I finally sat through the film and listened to the main star: Brenda Clubine tell her story.   After the film, the audience was surprised to see Brenda there in person. She began telling the audience about her years of abuse, bruises, broken bones, a skull fracture…all inflicted by her husband. Over the years she called the police, went to the hospital many times, filed 11 restraining orders, and had a warrant out against him but the system still failed to protect her.  Eventually she found the courage to file for divorce but the abuse continued and when she met him to sign the divorce papers at a hotel he was staying at, he locked her in and started beating her up so badly and said he "didn't want the cops to recognize her after he was done."  He was drinking badly and she saw an opening and grabbed a wine bottle and hit him in the head and fled. The next day when the cops came to question her she found out that he died...the bottle cracked his skull and he had a brain hemorrhage that resulted in his death. She was sentenced to 15 years to life and sent to the CA Institute for Women.

Brenda, Olivia Klaus (the producer of Sin By Silence) and I met after the screening and I asked them how many women were "stuck" in jail. "Many" I was told so we started to strategize on how to get them out.

“Many” have been in jail for 20-30-40 years now. “Many” didn't have the documentation to prove they had been victims of abuse so it was harder to put together a case for their release.

For the next year, my office worked closely with Brenda, Olivia, the USC Post Conviction Justice Project,  the California Women's Law Center,  Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the CA Coalition for Battered Women in Prison and the Habeas Project to come up with legislation before I termed out. This is a complex area of the law, we were at wits end many times, and the clock was ticking.

I decided I needed to attend a parole board hearing to better understand the process and figure out what law we could pass.

Leesha Gooseberry was up for parole on 7/6/13 in Chowchilla so I put in my name for clearance. She had repeatedly been denied parole by commissioners who didn’t understand Intimate Partner Battering.  The Board knew I was coming so they swapped out one of the Deputy Parole Board members for a young DV specialist and even served us doughnuts and coffee (which I heard later never happens).  Heidi Rummel, Co-Director of the USC Post Conviction Justice Project and her law school student Joanna were representing a woman named Leesha. Leesha's 25 year old daughter, who had only met her mother once before, decided to attend from New Orleans. She had to leave the hearing several times because the testimony was too graphic and emotional. Over the next 2 hours, we got a clear picture of Leesha's painful childhood growing up in New Orleans. We heard about her constant physical abuse by her step father that she was forced to endure since she was 4 years old. When she was 15, she met a drug deal 23 years her senior who claimed he "owned her." The relationship led to dependence, isolation and sadistic, unwanted sexual abuse. Eventually it led to the birth of her daughter.  He jumped bail on federal drug charges and brought Leesha and her daughter to California where the abuse and isolation escalated.   Leesha, a humiliated, emotionally broken 19 year old, did the only thing she thought she could do to protect her daughter’s life - when she killed the man threatening to kill her and her daughter.

In 2004, Leesha was found suitable for parole but Gov Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the parole Board's decision. She was denied parole in 2007 and 2009 by the parole board. She had been jail for 25 years by the time I attended her parole board hearing when once again they found her "suitable for parole."

After that parole board hearing, I had firsthand experience into the process (although it was better than most) and figured out how to argue persuasively for my last two legacy pieces of legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown. These two laws are probably my proudest accomplishments in my 10 year elected career:  AB 593 which would allow people convicted of a violent felony before 1996 to petition for a retrial if they were convicted with limited domestic violence expert testimony and/or no expert testing. And AB 1593 requires the Parole Board to give "great weight to any information or evidence that, at the time of the commission of the crime, the prisoner had experienced intimidate partner battering" and cannot use "lack of insight" as a reason for denial.

As for Leesha...Governor Brown signed her release and she is doing great — she is working at a restaurant, she just opened a bank account, and she is scheduled to move out of her transitional facility on June 5.  She has spoken at Southwestern Law School to a group of law students studying Gender and Sexual Violence and the Law and she is scheduled to speak at USC next week to Heidi's Post-Conviction Justice Project students. She is hoping that her parole officer will approve her to travel to New Orleans before the end of the year so she can see her daughter. 

She is here with us today. Please help me recognize Leesha who is out of prison and trying to reclaim a long life stolen from her.

Heidi Rummel, Co-Director at USC Post conviction Justice project is also with us here today. USC helped gain Leesha's freedom and 55 other women's freedom to date. 

However the majority of the 11,000 women incarcerated in California state prisons are survivors of domestic abuse and hundreds are serving life terms for defending themselves and their children from an abusive partner.

I want to thank the California Women’s Law Center and the coalition for introducing 5 bills from 1994-2001 to secure judicial relief for battered women in prison.

In 2002, the coalition launched The Habeas Project to inform incarcerated survivors about the law, screen them for eligibility and recruit, train, and support volunteer attorneys to represent Domestic violence survivors.   The Habeas Project identified hundreds of women who they believed qualified for relief under Senator Betty Karnette and Senator John Burton's (my mentor) laws. The Habeas Project got 36 women released from jail through the efforts of pro bono attorneys; however, they were forced to close in the fall of 2011 because of funding cuts.  I believe there were 18 women who were on the waiting list for pro bono attorneys.  Please contact Heidi at hrummel@law.usc.edu if you’d like to help these women.

Madeline Albright said:  “there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.”

I believe "hell" is one of these women's prison and many of the women there are victims and survivors who are helping each other through their past abuses, crimes and struggles to become strong together.  These women do not pose a threat to society and have done their time.

We, my friends, need to do our part to break them free! 

Thank you!