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A Closer Look
Battered women form support group behind bars

Story:Reclaiming the Past

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Greenberg’s second chance
            In the California Institution for Women in Corona, Greenberg kept to herself at first. Susan Deering, who had been in jail for eight years when Greenberg came, helped her. “Susie was so young, and I thought, Oh God, there’s me,” Deering said.  Deering got Greenberg involved in prison support groups and eventually she began to open up. But with no possibility of parole for 17 years, there was nothing to do but do the time.

            pull5It wasn’t easy time. “When you’re inside, you’re afraid all the time,” Greenberg said. The normal person would be humiliated and mortified.  When I saw the Abu Ghraib pictures it didn’t phase me at all. It seemed normal to me. I was shocked that the world was shocked about it.  A lot of prisoners felt the same way.”
            In 1992, four years after Greenberg was convicted, Sacramento passed a law clearly allowing women and their lawyers to submit battered women’s syndrome evidence.  Ten years later, another law was passed which allowed women convicted of murder before 1992 to try to convince a judge that if they had put on evidence of BWS at their trials their cases would have turned out differently.  California is the only state with such a law.

            The cases are difficult. The law requires expert testimony about the effects of the battering, which doesn’t come cheap, and reconstructing decades-old events is a challenge.  Judges have leeway to deny the cases outright or order an evidentiary hearing.  They can reverse the convictions, order a new trial or rule that the defendants should have been convicted of a different crime.

            Greenberg had pro bono help from Foley and Lardner, a giant law firm better known for representing hospital chains than abused women.  They filed a lengthy habeas corpus (“you have the body”) petition in court. Carden is an experienced business litigator at Foley.  But he was jittery about having a client’s freedom – as opposed to money -- in his hands.  “I thought, what the hell am I doing?” he said. “Who’s to say I’m not going to screw it up? Here’s a woman that has a good chance of being set free if you do it right, and if you do it wrong, no matter how good her case is, she’s sunk.” 

            Their main challenge was Greenberg’s lack of credibility. “She told the police different stories -- she shot him, she didn’t shoot him, and then the stories were different about how she shot him,” Carden said. Greenberg also initially denied that Turner had abused her, but now said that he abused her constantly.  If that story didn’t fly, there would be no basis for Kaser-Boyd’s opinion that Susan acted in fear of her life.  And without that, they couldn’t show that the case should have turned out differently.

            Shaky stories by battered women are common. “In most cases, there is no information in the record that says, ‘By the way, he hit me every night for five years,’” said USC law professor Carrie Hempel. “In virtually none of these circumstances are they asked if they were battered.”  Even when they are asked, their stories rarely hang together. “The stress that someone suffers as the result of being battered is that it makes the memory fragmented and they have problems being able to clearly articulate events,” Hempel added. “It makes it harder for us to put the case on.”


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