Case histories reveal troubling questions about circumstances of the crimes BATTERED SPOUSE SYNDROME & COMMUTATIONS


On Feb. 18, Gov. William Donald Schaefer was given a review of the cases of eight women whose sentences he would commute the next day. All but one of the women were convicted in the killings of their mates.

The review, from Mary Ann Saar, the governor's director of operations and public safety, and Nancy J. Nowak, director of his Office of Justice Assistance, offered Mr. Schaefer "justification and clarification which may be helpful in your decision making."

It depicted the eight women and their stories of abuse in strong, unequivocal terms.

Announcing the commutations Feb. 19, the governor described the women and their accounts in similarly certain terms: "If I were the judge, I'd weigh all the evidence, particularly if I was allowed to review the evidence as to how these women were treated. And it wasn't a matter of one time, it was a continual, continual, continual beating that these women suffered."

But a review of the legal record and interviews by The Sun suggest that at least three of the seven homicide cases are not unequivocal. In their cases, the record contradicts the accounts that were provided to the governor.

An eighth woman released had not committed murder; she was serving time for assault. All of the women freed by the governor last month remain on supervised probation.

Here (italicized) are excerpts from the memo, followed by readily available information gathered by reporters who reviewed the legal record and interviewed those involved in the cases:


Charge: Murder I, Conspiracy to Commit Murder

Sentence: Life with all but 40 years suspended

Time Served: 2 years, 2 months

Rationale: 20 year history of abuse that included abuser shooting Ms. Barnes in head and leg which has resulted in paralysis of right side of body and temporary blindness. Death threats to family members. Bullet remains lodged in head. Called police seven times without adequate assistance. Offense occurred after severe beating and rape.

No question exists that Bernadette Barnes suffered prior abuse. She was shot by her husband 10 years before she had him killed. In fact, reporters quickly located documentary evidence of possible abuse exceeding that provided to state officials -- a further indication that the effort to corroborate the women's accounts was limited.

However, the question raised by Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms is whether Barnes was driven to have her husband killed because he was abusing her or because she stood to collect $22,000 or more from insurance policies on his life.

While Bernadette Barnes insisted to a reporter that the murder of her husband was motivated by fear rather than money, Mr. Simms calls the murder of Henry Barnes a "contract murder, plain and simple."

Governor Schaefer could not even ponder this argument. He was never told about the murder-for-profit element of the Barnes case.

Henry Barnes was found dead behind the wheel of his parked car on Baltimore's West Lafayette Avenue in October 1987, killed by one blast from a sawed-off shotgun. His wife, who had given a photograph of her husband to the contract killer, was at her office at the time of the murder.

The crime remained unsolved until the following March, when police learned of a murder-for-hire plot known to several of Bernadette Barnes' co-workers at the city Department of Social Services. One of those co-workers, Pamela Mitchell, allowed detectives to record a telephone conversation in which the murder and police pressure were discussed:

"Damn, Pammy," Bernadette Barnes told her friend. "Just don't come apart on me, please."

"Well I'm trying, but I'm scared," said Ms. Mitchell. "They know a lot. . . ."

"They don't know nothing, Pammy," said Barnes.

In addition to being a key piece of evidence, the taped conversation helped to convince Mr. Simms and other investigators that Bernadette Barnes was a woman with the wherewithal to manipulate her environment. At various points, Barnes urges her friend not to tell grand jurors anything, not to contact a lawyer -- "a lawyer gonna want to know damn questions" -- and to avoid wiretaps by not calling Barnes at home.

At the time of the taped call, Barnes had already received $22,000 from one insurance policy, but during the call she notes with some frustration that the police attention has probably delayed payment of another policy on her husband:

"Goddamn. I don't need this. See, that's why the insurance company hasn't paid off. Now I understand. 'Cause I haven't received anything from the insurance company. Nothing."

At trial, Barnes initially pleaded innocent, and her attorney attempted to raise the issue of domestic abuse.

Circuit Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe prohibited the lawyer froaddressing the issue in opening statements, citing Maryland law that allows such testimony only where traditional self-defense is a viable issue.

After several prosecution witnesses testified, Barnes changed her plea to guilty and testified against Edwin Gordon, the 23-year-old gunman, who was eventually sentenced to life with parole for the murder.

At the trial, Barnes' co-workers testified that Barnes often talked to them about the money she would receive upon her husband's death. Rodney Vice, who brokered the murder contract, took a $5,400 payment from Barnes.

He testified that his cousin, who worked with Barnes, approached him with the plot and said that the murder was for monetary gain.

C7 In her own testimony, Barnes said she asked Vice to

shoot her husband on payday, because she did not want to give him her pay.

In addition to paying the killers, Barnes used part of the $22,000 insurance check to pay off a Choice credit card bill of several thousand dollars, lend money to her brother-in-law and buy Christmas gifts, according to testimony.

Officials in the governor's office say the fact that Barnes was shot 10 years before she had her husband killed was so impressive that no one bothered to ask for additional evidence of the two decades of abuse Barnes claimed. Nor did anyone review the record to see whether motivations other than the 1977 shooting might have led to the murder.

"This woman still has a bullet lodged in her neck," said Ms. Nowak of the governor's office. "She was shot one time in the leg. She is visibly paralyzed on one side."

This was the only case in which House of Ruth advocates were willing to describe the contents of their commutation appeal file to reporters.

Judith A. Wolfer, the legal clinic director who supervised the preparation of abuse information, said her file included documents from the 1977 shooting, Barnes' own account of the relationship and affidavits from the woman's two daughters, teen-agers at the time of the murder.

Asked whether the motive of insurance money should have been examined, Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson said the House of Ruth's account persuaded him that the murder would not have occurred without the prior abuse.

Yet in that same interview, Mr. Robinson suggested incorrectly that Barnes had been paid only $5,000 in insurance, most of which had gone to funeral expenses. A check of the trial evidence would have revealed the $22,000 insurance payment to Barnes' bank account in December 1987.

As for the assertion that she was "severely beaten and rapedjust before the murder -- as alleged in the memo to the governor -- Barnes made no such claims in an interview with The Sun. She said she had been put on the street and forced to live at the house of a friend.

Barnes also said that while she moved out of the house on several occasions, she always had to return because her husband threatened to harm anyone who gave her refuge. She said this occurred when she was put out of the house in the weeks before the killing.

"You know, he put me out of the house," she said. "I put a lot of time and money into that house, too, and it was my feeling that if anyone was going to leave, it was going to be him."

In the interview, Barnes said she believed that there was no way out of a long, abusive relationship but to have her husband killed. She said she only hired a contract killer because she was physically incapable of committing the act herself:

"I felt that it was either him or me. You don't know what it is to live with someone when you don't know what that person is going to do at any given moment."

Money wasn't the motive, she insisted. "It wasn't about the money. . . . The check came and I took it, you know, but anyone would do that."


Charge: Murder II

Sentence: 15 years

Time served: 4 years, 3 months

Next parole hearing date: 1/91 postponed

Rationale: Five years of abuse. Many attempts to leave whereby abuser would find her and abuse would escalate with threats of death. Offense occurred during attack.

Virginia J. Johnson's killing of John T. Cheavers, the father of three of her four children, followed an evening of arguing and an earlier "physical . . . altercation" witnessed by at least four people.

According to her statement in the prosecutor's file, Johnson was upset by some of the things Mr. Cheavers had said to her that evening. She decided to get even with him by putting sugar in his gas tank. When he realized what Johnson was doing, he approached her, threatening, "I'm going to f- - - you up bad this time."

At that point, she stabbed him in the chest with a kitchen knifewhich she said she noticed on a ledge nearby.

Witnesses said that Mr. Cheavers then took off his jacket ansaid, "I'm going to kill you," but changed his mind and drove away in his car. He was found hours later, slumped over the wheel at the side of the road, dead from a stab wound to the heart.

Johnson's accounts of the night tend to change. In aappearance on the Phil Donahue television program, 10 days ago, Johnson said, "We were fighting; he kicked me up against a wall, and I fell upon a knife."

Davis R. Ruark, Wicomico County state's attorney, said that Johnson's accounts of the murder do not conform to the evidence.

Johnson showed no sign of injury on the night of the murder. Likewise, had Johnson not agreed to plead guilty, witnesses would have testified that before the stabbing, Johnson was heard rummaging in the kitchen. The murder weapon that Johnson said she found on a ledge or "fell upon" was identified as a knife missing from the kitchen.

Mr. Ruark has little doubt that the murder was the final act in a troubled relationship. With some understatement, he described the couple's relationship as "stormy." But what disturbs the Wicomico County prosecutor most about the commutation process is the possibility that Johnson's capacity for violence is greater than the governor knew.

Months after the murder, while she was on bail, Johnson was charged with assault and carrying a deadly weapon on school grounds. Brandishing a knife, she allegedly accosted a high school student, Janice Shepard, whom Mr. Ruark described as "a potential witness" in the murder trial.

"Virginia Johnson pulled a knife from the front of her pants and told the victim, 'Bitch, I'm going to kill you. I done already killed one person, and I'll kill you, too,' " according to police charges at the time.

A man in the group of six accompanying Johnson then struck the teen-ager twice in the head, knocking her to the ground before a vice principal intervened, according to the charging document. The assault case was dropped later that year, but only as part of the plea agreement by which Johnson received her 15-year sentence. The case cannot be reopened.

Ms. Wolfer, the House of Ruth attorney, refused to comment specifically on Johnson's alleged threat, but she conceded that that sort of behavior months after the death of the abuser probably could not be attributed to battered spouse syndrome.

"I'm not a psychiatrist, but I don't think so," she said, "It's not an insanity defense -- or anything like it."

Mr. Ruark, the Wicomico prosecutor, said that if he had been questioned by the governor or his representatives about the alleged death threat, he would have argued that "given those circumstances, that it would've indicated to me that this was violence toward an individual other than the guy who got stabbed."

Mr. Schaefer, he said, "is free to make that decision. I just wish he had known."

Johnson's advocates declined to make her available for an interview, saying that because she is now living in Wicomico County, they wish to avoid any further debate with Mr. Ruark.


Charge: Murder II, carrying deadly weapon

Sentence: 30 years with all but 25 suspended

Time served: 2 years, 3 months

Next parole hearing date: Ineligible -- at Patuxent

Rationale: Two years of extraordinary physical and sexual abuse during marriage, with eight years preceding during premartial relationship that resulted in miscarriage. Abuser often wielded gun, threatening Ms. Washington with her life. Offense occurred during attack.

If the governor had been presented with both sides of the story in the case of Patricia Ann Washington, he might have been confounded -- all the more so because the woman, diagnosed as clinically depressed and continually medicated, produces her own profound contradictions.

Washington murdered her husband, Robert, in their Hyattsville apartment in 1988. In the case for her commutation, she recounts years of abuse that led her to kill her husband on a night that he was beating her -- the only account presented to the governor. But evidence never brought to Mr. Schaefer's attention suggests otherwise.

The legal record provides no evidence that Robert Washington was stabbed by his wife during an attack, as the memo sent to the governor states. Washington consistently denied any history abuse in statements to police detectives, court testimony and in repeated interviews with pre-sentence investigators and psychologists who spoke with her months after the slaying.

In her interview with The Sun, Washington insisted with startling intensity that her husband had beaten her repeatedly during much of their eight years together, but she acknowledged that she herself knew of no corroboration for her account.

She said no one knew about the beatings -- that she told no one and no one saw it happen. She said that she called the police on several occasions but that she would leave before they arrived, for fear of being beaten further by her husband. She said that no reports were filed with the police and that no charges were ever brought against him.

During that interview at the House of Ruth, Washington was in obvious emotional distress, answering questions in slow and deliberate fashion. She painfully and tearfully recounted a history of domestic abuse.

She broke down in a similar fashion when she was interviewed by a psychologist before her sentencing, telling the psychologist that her husband had never struck her before the night of the murder.

At that time, she described their relationship as mutually supportive, though she added that in later months he had taken to drink and drugs and had been verbally abusive at times.

Once, she said, he shook her harshly.

At her 1989 murder trial, Washington told Prosecutor Diane Adkins that her husband beat her on the night of the killing but had never beaten her before.

Ms. Adkins: "Now, during the period of time that you and he had known each other, he had never hit you, had he?"

Washington: "No."

Q: "He had never struck you before, had he?"

A: "No."

Q: "He never lost his temper and hit you in anger?"

A: "He would get mad and cuss me out sometimes."

Several questions later:

Q: "He never hit you?"

A: "He would shake me. He never hit me."

Ms. Wolfer, the legal clinic attorney, read the trial testimony for the first time after Washington had been set free under House of Ruth supervision -- in preparation for the reporter's interview with her client. She dismissed the testimony, noting that her client was a literal person who responded directly to questions containing double negatives.

When Washington answered "No," Ms. Wolfer said, she meant no, the statement was not true.

During the ensuing interview, Washington herself said she did not remember being questioned by the prosecutor or much about the trial at all: "I don't remember her asking me nothing," Washington said. "I don't remember anybody asking me what he did to me; they only wanted to know what I did to him."

While Washington testified at trial that her husband had slapped and punched her in the face and chest on the night of the murder, detectives could find no bruises, swelling or cuts on her body.

To prove the point, they took photographs of the defendant's face and torso.

Looking into Washington's contention that she killed her husband in self-defense, detectives conducted a background investigation, interviewing people who knew the couple -- some of whom were living in the same apartment where the murder occurred. They found no corroboration of prior physical abuse.

Witnesses to the incident -- a half-dozen others were in the same apartment at the time -- told police that they heard no arguing or fighting prior to the murder.

Mr. Washington died of a single stab wound to the middle of his back. When police asked Washington why the butcher knife was present in the bedroom, she told them she had used it to scrape her feet and fix a television antenna.

When detectives checked the television antenna, they found the rust on it undisturbed.

Washington's attorney, Elvira White, told the jury in closing that Washington killed her husband out of fear for her life: "Just because there was not a pattern of Mrs. Washington getting beaten, bruised, ill-treated for years does not necessarily mean that this did not happen on that occasion, and that does not mean that she didn't have a legitimate reason to be scared."

At sentencing, concerns were raised about Washington's depression and her competency, but the sentence was upheld on appeal. Responding to those concerns, the trial judge recommended that Washington be sent to the Patuxent Institution rather than the women's prison at Jessup.

Legal advocates for Washington declined to release whatever corroboration of abuse they presented to state officials.

They contend that Washington's inconsistent testimony is the result of prolonged abuse and the continuing effects of battered spouse syndrome.

One thing is clear: Patricia Washington is still haunted by the image of her husband's last minutes of life. It remains, in a sense, her sentence.

At the end of an interview, she said she wanted to make one last point about the killing she now says she cannot remember: "I want to know how did he feel. Did he cry? Was he in pain, or what?

"I'll never know that, will I?" she asked. "I know I can't bring him back, but I still miss him. He's all I had."

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