Silence No More

Fiona Ma tells of when she met Brenda Clubine and Olivia Klaus, two women with a story, actually many stories, and a mission.

My passion for helping domestic violence victims began on January 7, 2011 when I met Brenda Clubine and Olivia Klaus, two women with many heartfelt stories and a powerful mission. Brenda, a petite blonde woman with big blue eyes, recounted the years of abuse, bruises, broken bones, and skull fractures inflicted by her husband. Over the many years of abuse, she called the police, went to the hospital, filed restraining orders, took pictures and provided witnesses to law enforcement, but our justice system still failed her. Though she eventually even found the courage to file for divorce, the abuse still did not end. Defending herself, Brenda hit her husband over the head with a wine bottle and fled for her own safety. The impact from the wine bottle resulted in his death. Although there were 11 restraining orders filed against him and a warrant for his arrest, Brenda was convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to 15 years to life. She was sent to the CA Institute for Women in Chino. At first she thought she was alone in her circumstances; however, she soon discovered that there were many domestic violence victims incarcerated with her. Brenda founded a support group called Convicted Women Against Abuse (CWAA) to allow victims to share their stories and break the silence that forced women to feel abandoned and alone. Eleven years into her sentence, Brenda met a documentary filmmaker, Olivia Klaus, who was trying to understand the psyche of abusive relationships.

Brenda, CWAA, and Olivia led the statewide clemency movement for battered women in prison, and their advocacy led to the recognition of the Battered Women's Syndrome in 1992. They brought me a copy of Sin by Silence, the film they made in collaboration, to watch, and I promised I would. After watching the film with members of my staff, we felt compelled to do something for the other CWAA women in prison. Many women prisoners who are victims of domestic violence do not even have the hope of being released. Overcoming the odds, Brenda was given freedom after 24 years in prison, mostly due to the well-documented evidence of abuse she kept over the years.

After researching the issue further and meeting with legal experts, I authored two bills, AB 593 and AB 1593 to help victims of domestic violence. In this process of writing these bills, I heard many stories about our parole process and learned about the nine full-time Commissioners of the Board of Parole Hearings. All are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Most of the Commissioners are former members of law enforcement, and it is rumored that they tend to deny parole for CWAA members based on "lack of insight" or "lack of remorse." According to the USC Gould School of Law, the Parole Board currently denies parole to more than 80% of parole-eligible life inmates. Even if the Board approves parole, the Governor still has a chance to overturn their decision. California is one of only four states in the country where the Governor has this power.

AB 593 will allow people convicted in a violent felony trial before 1996 to petition for a retrial if they were convicted with limited domestic violence expert testimony and/or no expert testimony. This bill would help many women victims fully explain the circumstances surrounding their crime. AB 1593 further requires that if claims of intimate partner battering are substantiated by the Parole Board, the claims cannot be used against the victim for "lack of insight." Additionally, when the Parole Board does their investigation, it requires them to be specific regarding the findings of their investigation in their yearly report to the Legislature. Finally, it requires that the Parole Board give "great weight" to a convicted victim's claims of Battered Women's Syndrome.

CWAA advocates encouraged me to attend a Parole Board hearing in Chowchilla, CA to see the process for myself. Unfortunately, the Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, LA District Attorney and security personnel knew I was coming since I needed security clearance to attend. Thus, I was not given the privilege of being an incognito observer. The hearing was for a woman named Leesha. In attendance, supporting Leesha, were Heidi Rummel, an attorney, and Joanna Hall, a law student, both members of the Post-Conviction Justice Project at the University of Southern California Law School. Leesha's 25 year-old daughter, who has only met her mother once before, was also there for support. The testimony impacted her so much that she had to leave the room for about five minutes to compose herself. Over the course of the next 2 hours, I got a clear picture of Leesha's painful childhood growing up in New Orleans. We heard about the constant physical abuse by her step-father that she was forced to endure since the young age of four and rape she suffered at the hands of her very own uncle. When she was only 15, she met a drug dealer 23 years her senior. This encounter led to dependence, isolation, and sadistic, unwanted sexual behavior directed towards her. Eventually, it led to the birth of her daughter and subsequent fears for this baby girl's life. Leesha, a humiliated, emotionally broken 19-year-old, did the only thing she thought she could to protect her daughter's life - she killed the man abusing her.

By the time we took our first break, I was incredibly emotional and needed some fresh air. We came back to go over Leesha's parole plan, letters of support and her "Relapse Prevention Plan." In 2004, Leesha was found "suitable for parole," but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the decision because of the seriousness of the offense and because he did not like her parole plans. She was also denied parole in 2007 and 2009 by the Parole Board. This time, however, the attorneys and Leesha were more than prepared. Since her incarceration 25 years ago, Leesha has worked on her job skills by getting training and experience in dental technology, cosmetology, and hospice care. Furthermore, the Commissioner looked favorably upon a letter from Sister Terry Dodge, Executive Director of Crossroads, Inc., who guaranteed her a place to stay and assistance during her parole period. Sister Dodge also secured a permanent job in hospice care for Leesha upon her release.

The Commissioner then read into the record many more Letters of Support and briefly highlighted pertinent statements and Leesha's relationship with each author. He also listed the Certificates of Recognition/Completion that Leesha received for various self-help classes. He reviewed her substance abuse history, violations within the prison institution, her medical history, and a report by Battered Women's Syndrome expert Dr. Lee Bowker.

Finally, the attorneys made their closing statements, and Leesha gave her prepared closing remarks and spontaneously concluded by apologizing to her daughter for not being able to raise her. Her daughter was clearly shaken and unable to give her testimony so the attorney read her short, heartfelt statement into record.

Ultimately, the Commissioner and Deputy found Leesha "Suitable for Parole" based on 19 factors, one of which was the Battered Women's Syndrome testimony. The Commissioner summarized and read into the record the "Battered Woman Syndrome Investigation" summary of findings. Furthermore, Dr. Bowker's conclusions that Leesha has extreme remorse for her action and has become a positive role model for other inmates were read into the record. Leesha is not free yet; the Governor will soon have the chance to overturn the Parole Board's decision. I hope the Governor allows her to spend the rest of her life with her daughter as a free woman.

Fiona Ma
Assembly Speaker pro Tem
Chair of the Select Committee on Domestic Violence
July 7, 2012

P.S.  The Full Parole Board has 120 Days after 7/6/2012 (Hearing) to review the findings of the panel.  If there is no opposition, Leesha’s case goes to the Governor on November 2nd and he has 30 days to either “Reverse” the decision of the Parole Board or “Decline to Review” which essentially means the Parole Board decision stands and Leesha would be eligible for parole on December 2nd.  It normally takes about a week or so to process the paperwork and Leesha could be spending this Christmas with her family and loved ones after spending 25 years  in prison.