Freedom weighed for 3 more battered women who killed

Gale Hawkins still remembers the lonely panic that greeted her at the door of Mondawmin Mall a year ago. She had gone there on a simple errand, but suddenly, with the world rushing by her at the mall entrance, she felt overwhelmed.

"I had never been free before," says Ms. Hawkins, who was one of a dozen women released from prison last year in Gov. William Donald Schaefer's controversial grant of leniency for women said to have killed their mates after being abused. "I sure wasn't free when I was in prison for the last 12 years. And I wasn't free with my boyfriend before that."


At the threshold of the Baltimore shopping mall, Ms. Hawkins forced herself to take one step forward. "I decided right then and there that I had no choice but to start to live my life."

Now, Gale Hawkins has her own apartment and a full-time job as a crisis counselor at a Baltimore relief agency. She is also engaged to a new boyfriend -- "he's the first I've ever had to treat me right," she says -- and they are planning a December wedding.


Ms. Hawkins' success is not unique. Most of the women freed by the governor are doing well. Their releases drew attention to battered-spouse syndrome, a psychological condition in which prolonged domestic abuse provokes a victim to violence.

Buoyed by the success of some of the women released last year, advocates for victims of domestic violence are preparing a second list of candidates for commutations. The tentative list NTC includes three women.

While advocates had hoped to recommend more candidates to the governor by September 1991, the second round of cases has been delayed, state officials say, by the controversy that followed the earlier effort and a more comprehensive review process that resulted.

The February 1991 commutations drew criticism after The Sun reported that state officials relied on a review process conducted by advocates for the women, who did not review court files or contact judges, prosecutors or defense attorneys in the cases.

Unknown to the governor, one of the women commuted last year had undertaken to kill her estranged husband knowing that she would profit from life insurance policies; another was charged with threatening a witness after being released on bail for killing her boyfriend; a third could provide no corroboration of any abuse by her husband.

As a result, legal advocates for the new commutation candidates have since been asked by gubernatorial aides to check the women's own accounts against court records, case evidence and the recollections of judges or prosecutors.

"We're pleased that we've engaged in early discussions with the advocates," says Nancy Nowak, who has headed the commutation effort for the governor's office of justice assistance. "We now feel confident that the procedures that will be followed this time will be very comprehensive."

Carol Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Domestic Violence Task Force, an umbrella group of advocates that is reviewing the candidates, says that changes in the list of three are possible before the governor is asked to consider the matter.


"I'm not yet satisfied that all of the necessary investigative steps have yet been undertaken, and we're basically waiting for that to occur," says Ms. Alexander, who is director of the House of Ruth, a Baltimore shelter for battered women.

"I think that we've come to the conclusion that there are troubling aspects about each of the cases," she says of the second list. "But I think it's also fair to say that when our review is completed, we will be comfortable with the totality of the evidence [of battered-spouse syndrome] in the cases that we send to the governor."

Ms. Alexander says her group hopes to send a final report to the state before next month. The three candidates now on the list include two women from Prince George's County and one from Calvert County. All three were convicted of murder -- two in the second degree, one in the first degree -- after shooting their husbands or live-in boyfriends during domestic arguments. Two of the candidates are serving 25-year terms at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup; the third is serving a 20-year sentence at the same facility.

Meanwhile, the dozen women released by the governor are still serving terms of parole or probation. State public safety officials say that only Arlene Ellis of Salisbury, who was given early release by the governor for the non-fatal stabbing of her boyfriend, has had any additional legal problems.

Ms. Ellis was arrested again last month after allegedly tearing up a Salisbury motel room in an argument with the same boyfriend whom she had earlier stabbed, according to state parole and probation spokeswoman Susan Kaskie, who adds that any action on Ms. Ellis's parole status would wait for the case to be adjudicated. A trial date is scheduled for November.

At least two of the women released last year are having trouble stabilizing their lives, state officials and advocates say.


But most -- like Ms. Hawkins -- have made new lives for themselves.

Mytokia Friend is counseling other battered women at the House of Ruth, while Marie Lake is working as an administrative assistant at a state public defenders office. Two others have since moved from Maryland and are being supervised in other states.

"It's very, very difficult when you've not only spent a great deal of time in prison, but you're estranged from family and children and released to a community where the support systems are not necessarily what we'd like them to be," says Ms. Nowak. "We're very pleased for the most part that many of these women have excellent track records."

In fact, some of the released women complain privately that they are held to unnecessarily tight parole supervision because they remain high-profile cases. State parole officials acknowledge that this is true, but understandable.

"It's reasonable to say that, with high-profile cases, we tend to take that extra step," says Ms. Kaskie, a department spokeswoman. "But as it becomes clear that a case needs less supervision, we respond, though not as fast as people being supervised think we should."

One of the success stories is that of Joyce Steiner, who was among the first eight women commuted: "In my case," she says with some pride. "I'm doing the same thing that I was doing before I went away."


Ms. Steiner, who is engaged and planning to marry again once her parole term ends, is working as an office manager for a Columbia environmental firm -- the same position she held while she was out on bail awaiting trial: "They held that job for me," she says. "So I'm making the most of it."

Now planning for her December wedding date, Ms. Hawkins says she regards herself as an example of what such women can accomplish if given a second chance. Working as a crisis counselor, she says her own experiences "help me to feel for these people and whatever they're going through. They can tell I've been there before."