Woman whose tale of abuse was focus in commutations still jailed 8 gained freedom; 4 others still wait

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For Gale Hawkins, the logic of the governor's mercy has proven elusive.

She is the one who never wavered, insisting from the day of her arrest that she stabbed her boyfriend only after years of abuse. She is the one regarded -- by fellow inmates, by psychologists, even by the prosecutor who convicted her -- as the textbook example of a woman who killed because she saw no other way out.

She is the one who so impressed Gov. William Donald Schaefer that he told her story when he announced the commutations of women who killed or assaulted mates they say beat them.

"The one who was abusing her was using her as a punching bag," Mr. Schaefer told reporters at his Feb. 19 press conference. "There's no question in my mind that she was going to be killed."

One other thing about Gale Annette Hawkins: She is still in prison.

Hawkins, 34, is serving a life sentence at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. The West Baltimore woman was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1979 stabbing death of Randolph Harry.

Instead of freeing Hawkins, whose story he heard when he visited the MCIW last year and then quoted repeatedly, Mr. Schaefer granted commutation to eight other women -- three of whom became a source of controversy when The Sun cited discrepancies between the legal record and summaries of the cases provided to the governor by aides.

For Hawkins and three other women who were passed over for clemency, the questions are both painful and obvious: Why them and not me? What was it that made others more deserving of mercy? What was it about my case that worried the governor?

The answers aren't so obvious. The four women appear to have met the same criteria for battered-spouse syndrome that state officials say they followed when setting the other inmates free. And while aspects of their cases might give state officials some concern, the problems don't seem at all comparable to those evident in the February commutations.

None of the four women still imprisoned killed their mates for profit, as may have been the case with one woman who was freed by the governor. None has been accused of being a danger to anyone other than the men they killed, unlike another woman released in February, who had been charged with pulling a knife on a potential witness in her case.

At least three of the four women have some independent corroboration for their accounts of abuse, unlike one woman granted clemency who acknowledged that she knew of no evidence of such abuse. Nor was corroboration found by detectives or offered at her trial.

Moreover, the commutation process -- whether by intent or by chance -- managed to deny mercy to the four prisoners who had served the longest time and did not benefit from court decisions allowing evidence of prior domestic abuse to be considered.

The longest sentence served by any of the eight women freed by the governor was just over four years. In contrast, the four women still at the MCIW have served between 5 1/2 and 13 years. And all but one of those freed were sentenced in 1988 or later, when appeals court decisions established a more liberal legal standard allowing testimony about prior abuse.

Aides in the governor's office say they cannot explain the rationale behind the clemency recommendations made by public safety officials to the governor: "Frankly, we don't know what the reasoning was," said Nancy J. Nowak, director of the governor's Office of Justice Assistance.

Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Bishop L. Robinson declined to answer questions about either the commutation process or its result, citing dissatisfaction with The Sun's coverage of the issue.

"We simply feel that you're going to write what you're going to write and we're not going to get a fair hearing," said Leonard A. Sipes, public safety spokesman.

Nor would officials from the House of Ruth or the Public Justice Center, advocacy groups that screened the commutation candidates at the prison, respond to specific questions about their role in the review process. They, too, say they do not understand the choices made by state public safety officials.

Gubernatorial aides say that the questions raised by the February commutations have left Mr. Robinson and other public safety officials more cautious. As a result, new commutation recommendations for Hawkins and the three women remaining at the MCIW -- which were requested by the governor in February -- are still pending though they were expected by May 1.

State investigators have been checking court records and interviewing judges and prosecutors about the remaining cases -- research that was not performed in their first review. State officials say the change is not due to criticism of the earlier commutations, but because the four remaining candidates were already turned down once.

Inside the Jessup prison, the women who had for months come to believe that the commutation process would mean freedom )) see the continuing delay as proof that the controversy has damaged their chances.

"Now because of what happened, people are saying that we're all just lying about this," Hawkins said. "Now, everyone's ready to forget about us."

*

The crime:

On June 23, 1979, the 22-year-old Hawkins stabbed her boyfriend 22 times with a knife and sewing scissors, then called police and ranted hysterically to a police dispatcher. Officers said she was frantic when they found her on a West North Avenue corner, holding both weapons.

When Hawkins led police back to her apartment, she pointed to a bedroom door, saying that she had stabbed her boyfriend. The officers found a blood-stained bed, then followed blood smears and droplets down the hall to the kitchen, where Randolph Harry was lying next to the refrigerator, dying.

"I thought I killed you," she said, then kicked the man.

Hawkins said she had killed her boyfriend of two years after months of physical and sexual abuse. She said that she began stabbing him as he was beating her against the refrigerator and that she continued stabbing him as he staggered to the bedroom.

"All I could think of when he had me up against the refrigerator was that I wasn't going to let him kill me in front of his friend," Hawkins said in a recent interview. "I grabbed the knife and the scissors off the counter and I just started stabbing. I don't remember stabbing him 22 times."

A male friend of the victim who was living with the couple provided a different version of the killing. He testified there was no fight in the kitchen and that Hawkins stabbed Mr. Harry as he slept.

With no battered-spouse defense plausible under existing Maryland law, P. M. Smith, the defense attorney, opted for an insanity defense. In addition, he argued that Hawkins had killed in self-defense, but he couldn't overcome the physical evidence and the testimony of the victim's friend.

"I did everything I could think of," said Mr. Smith, who represented Hawkins for free and has since left law for the ministry. "That case has haunted me like no other. I truly believe what that woman was saying."

A jury found Hawkins guilty of first-degree murder. Judge Paul A. Dorf sentenced her to life.

While there are contradictions about what occurred the night of the murder, those discrepancies are largely irrelevant, according the criteria that state officials say they employed. The battered-spouse syndrome suggests that women who kill their abusers often strike first at opportune times in an attempt to end abuse. All parties in the Hawkins case agree that the defendant killed her boyfriend only after considerable abuse.

Medical experts called by the defense believed that. So did a court-appointed psychologist, who urged Judge Dorf to consider minimal sentence, followed by work-release. As part of the later commutation process, Hawkins' family members have also corroborated some of the abuse.

The prosecutor in the case, Jonathan H. Shoup, now says that while he has a problem with any person taking another's life, "under the definition of a lot of what the battered woman's syndrome is, Gale Hawkins would be a classic example."

Asked to review the Hawkins file, Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms told public safety officials that his office would not oppose her commutation. Mr. Dorf, who has retired from the bench, said he doesn't remember the case.

During her 12 years in prison, Hawkins has earned a bachelor's degree from Morgan State University and helped establish a support group at the MCIW for abused women. She started a letter-writing campaign that eventually brought advocacy groups to the prison in 1989, beginning the efforts to free abused women.

Even among the other inmates at the MCIW, Hawkins has a special status. The decision to keep her in prison while others were commuted came as a surprise.

"The person who is most hurt by this is Gale," said fellow inmate Marie Lake. "You can ask anyone in here -- the staff, the inmates -- who should have been the first woman they let free and they'll tell you. She's done so much for this institution, and to have this happen just doesn't make sense."

Lake, a former prostitute who killed her boyfriend in Baltimore in 1982 and was convicted and sentenced to life with all but 30 years suspended the following year, is one of the other three candidates for commutation who are still in prison.

Lake said she is unsure why her commutation was denied, but added that a parole official who recently interviewed her was concerned about her history of prostitution. Yet in February, state officials commuted the sentence of a South Baltimore woman with a lengthy police record involving prostitution, robbery and burglary.

Lake also had a 14-year history of drug and alcohol abuse when she killed her boyfriend, and like many women who are said to suffer from battered-spouse syndrome, she continued to insist on her innocence and to deny any history of domestic abuse until after her trial.

She says now that she went through a long period of denial in which she refused to admit her responsibility in the slaying. As for the history of drugs and prostitution, she said that all occurred in the past when she was involved in abusive relationships: "It's been eight years. How can they think I'm the same person now?" she said.

The Baltimore judge who sentenced Lake, Elsbeth L. Bothe, is now urging her release.

Also awaiting the results of the review is Joyce Danna, who fatally shot her husband, a Baltimore police officer, and was convicted of first-degree murder in 1977 and sentenced to life. While arguing that he abused her, Danna contends the shooting was accidental.

His co-workers, however, remain willing to testify that Mr. Danna was not abusive toward Joyce Danna, while a woman married previously to Mr. Danna was prepared to say that he was not violent toward her in their marriage.

Danna appealed her sentence this month only to have a second judge give her a life term, despite testimony from 16 defense witnesses about abuse by her husband. Because the evidence of alleged abuse has now been heard by a judge who nevertheless gave the same prison sentence, gubernatorial aides now say extending clemency to Danna would be difficult.

Danna declined to speak with a reporter, as did the fourth woman remaining at the MCIW, Carolyn Sue Wallace, who shot her husband to death in 1985 and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, for which a Baltimore County judge gave her a 20-year term.

Wallace shot her husband in the back six times and only recently began speaking of physical abuse. An incest victim herself, Wallace at the time of the slaying apparently feared that her husband would abuse her daughter.

In the Wallace case alone, The Sun was unable to find any corroboration of physical abuse. Advocates and aides in the governor's office say evidence does exist, but they declined to reveal it.

Hawkins and Lake have both come to believe that the reason they remain in prison is because both were given life sentences, as was Danna. They note that the only woman denied commutation who is not serving a life sentence, Wallace, had her regular parole hearing moved up a year.

"I think they were afraid to let any lifers go," Hawkins said. "It didn't matter how much time we had served or what our cases were about."

Hawkins and Lake both said they, too, were surprised by the revelations about some of the women freed in February, and they blame the ensuing controversy for keeping them in prison. Nonetheless, they say they are unwilling to publicly criticize the screening process or state officials for fear that they will be hurt in further commutation or parole efforts.

For his part, the governor continues to defend the commutation BTC process and its outcome, and has said he believes that no changes in the clemency review process are necessary. Although acknowledging in recent interviews that there were facts about the prior cases he did not know, Mr. Schaefer said he still believes he did the right thing.

"I was going to do it anyway because I believe in this," said Mr. Schaefer. "Would I pull back? No."

Gubernatorial aides and advocates for abused women, however, acknowledge that some changes in the screening process are likely. Most notably, prosecutors and judges will be given an opportunity for input in future cases.

Said Ms. Nowak of the governor's office: "For all of us, it was a learning process. I believe in the issue and I believe that we did the right thing and the governor did the right thing for these women. But if you're asking if we would do some things different, sure."

All of which is little solace for Hawkins, who is no longer placing much faith in the commutation effort. She said she is now looking ahead instead to her regular parole hearing in July.

"I don't understand it," Hawkins said. "I don't understand why I'm still in here and what else there is that they want me to do. . . . The hardest thing for me is to still be inside and hear people asking me, 'What about you, Gale? When are you getting out?' "

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