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Battered women form support group behind bars

Story:Reclaiming the Past

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Murder, or self defense?
A new California law enables abused women
to challenge their murder convictions.

By Eric Berkowitz


n July 8, 2005, Susan Greenberg sobbed her way out of the Placer County Court house and into the harsh morning light.  Still wearing a maroon prison jumpsuit – clothes she had worn for 18 years – she sniffed a flower by the steps.  Then she called her parents on a cell phone.

  “They said I’m free,” she said. “I’m so overwhelmed.”  Turning away, she whispered, “I’m scared.”

Susan Greenberg
Susan Greenberg in an undated photo.

        The slight, 37-year-old had good reason to be frightened.  Life in prison was far less terrifying for her than it had been on the outside.  Before she was arrested in 1987 for emptying a gun into Richard Turner, she had survived a year as his captive property and torture victim.  Turner had “bought” her from a trucker and introduced himself by beating, raping and drugging her in a Memphis hotel room.  As they drifted to Turner’s house in Maud, Okla., and finally to Northern California, the violence continued.  On May 6, 1987 Turner’s last day on earth – he raped her with a gun barrel and threatened to bury her in a shallow grave outside their doublewide trailer.

       By killing Turner, Greenberg traded daily torment for a 25-to-life murder rap.  But because of recent changes in the law and some long overdue luck, she has another chance.  After listening to the grim details of her life, a judge freed her last summer, saying that she was a “walking victim” but no murderer. With the help of $200 from the state, she is now in North Carolina, living with her parents and adjusting to life without violence or incarceration. “A normal conversation with someone that doesn’t know my past is really difficult,” she said. “There’s so much there that people don’t know.”

      Greenberg is one of the first to benefit from a new California law allowing courts to reverse the convictions of women who killed their abusers before evidence of Battered Women’s Syndrome was allowed in court.  Had Greenberg been prosecuted after 1992, when the evidence was first clearly allowed, she could have shown that she shot him in fear for her life.  But by then she was in jail.  The new law, enacted in 2002, let her go back to court and argue that she would have been found innocent if Turner’s incessant abuse had originally come out.

      But thanks to the growing belief that Battered Women’s Syndrome should be taken seriously, women who have been rotting in jail for decades now have a shot at getting out.  Only five women have been released from prison based on the new law, and the Los Angeles judge who hears these cases denies them as much as he grants them, but the belated justice process is starting.   Usually, it’s only the battered women who can testify about their partner’s physical or mental violence.  The trauma caused by abuse -- and the shame women feel in revealing it to cops and judges -- makes it hard for them to tell their stories consistently.  And the law doesn’t like inconsistency.  Pointing to Greenberg’s shifting factual accounts over the years, the prosecutor called her an unrepentant liar who cooked up the abuse story in prison.

      There are many women in prison like Greenberg. Forty percent of the 10,000 women in California prisons were physically or sexually abused before they were 18 years old, according to a study conducted by Little Hoover Commission.  Sixty percent were abused as adults, generally by their spouses or partners.  There are no official statistics for how many of more than 900 women in California prisons for murder killed an abusive partner, but Gloria Killian, head of the activist Action Committee for Women in Prison, estimates the number at more than 500. 



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