Justice for Some

Sympathetic onlookers squirmed in their seats and dabbed their eyes with tissues as they listened to stories of torture. Jim Herriman beat his wife Carol with a shotgun, choked her half to death, sexually abused his stepdaughter, even killed the family pet. By the end of Carol Herriman's two-hour clemency hearing last week, it was hard not to think this diminutive woman in an orange sweat suit did the world a favor when she killed her husband.

The Arizona State Clemency Board voted unanimously to reduce Carol Herriman's life sentence to time served, and recommend to Governor Jane Hull that she be released immediately. Herriman, who has served 13 years, has become the most recognized battered woman in Arizona.

But other women who killed abusive spouses or boyfriends are unable to take advantage of a recent change in state law that, because of peculiar wording, helped only Herriman.

When Herriman murdered her husband in 1987, "Battered Woman Syndrome" wasn't yet a valid legal defense in Arizona. Some women are so severely abused that they believe they are helpless to escape their abusers and that their lives are in constant danger. Battered Woman Syndrome has been legally recognized in Arizona since 1992.

But some women who were convicted before 1992, like Herriman, were precluded from presenting evidence of domestic abuse at their trials.

State Senator Elaine Richardson sponsored a bill in 1997 allowing the review of such cases. One woman, Sandra Reid, was released. Herriman was not, primarily because she was also convicted of conspiracy in addition to first-degree murder.

So Richardson drafted a new piece of legislation that allowed convictions of women for other offenses, not just murder, to be reexamined in light of the battered woman's defense. That legislation was signed into law a year ago and was touted by local media as "a second chance for killers." The Arizona Republic ran mug shots of six women, including Herriman, who supposedly stood to benefit from this new law.

But the law was flawed. Instead of allowing murder "and/or" other offenses to be reviewed, it simply said murder "and" other offenses. This means only women who had committed both offenses were eligible for review by the clemency board. Carol Herriman was the only woman who was eligible for review under that specific wording.

Susan Brune, who went to jail for killing a boyfriend who broke her nose and caused partial vision loss, was denied review. So was Lisa Shannon, who had a co-worker kill her husband who had pistol-whipped and threatened to kill her for years. Rebecca Llamas, who murdered her boyfriend, also applied for review under the new law but was denied because she lacked a dual conviction.

At Carol Herriman's clemency hearing, a barrage of character and expert witnesses testified. Lenore Walker, the nation's foremost expert on Battered Woman Syndrome, was patched in via telephone from Ft. Lauderdale to explain the cycle of violence -- why battered women stay, why they perceive they are in danger, even when their husbands are sleeping or, as Jim Herriman was when Carol shot him, on the toilet.

Herriman's attorney, Bob Hirsch, drew the most relevant testimony from Herriman's daughters, who described the physical and sexual torture they suffered at Jim Herriman's hands. Barbara Herriman, the oldest daughter, testified the family was held at gunpoint by Jim, and that her stepfather would make her stand naked in the yard while he threw knives at her.

"I could see my house from the bus stop, coming home from school," Barbara Herriman said. "I could see whether or not his truck was there, and I can remember feeling physically sick every day knowing I had to go there and not knowing what would happen."

Even Jim Herriman's mother spoke in favor of releasing the woman who killed her son.

Richardson, a Tucson Democrat, was the last witness. She gave a compelling, impassioned speech.

"This is about a woman not being able to tell her story, and tell it properly," she said.

Carol Herriman's clemency effort was the first case of The Justice Project, a last-ditch legal advocacy group launched in 1998 by local defense attorney Larry Hammond.

Hammond took the case after journalist Jana Bommersbach brought it to his attention. He sat down with Bommersbach and Hirsch, a Tucson attorney, and looked at what it would take to get clemency for Carol Herriman.

"We said we need three things," he explains. "We need America's best expert, we need a phenomenal lawyer who knows about mental health defenses, and we need to change the law."

Walker and Hirsch provided the first two requirements, Senator Richardson the third.

"There's nobody who cares more about domestic violence issues than I do. I'm the one who pushed this when people told me to leave the issue alone," says Richardson.

She says she was discouraged and surprised when she learned her revised bill would not help any woman except Herriman.

"Our intention was to have the bill the way it's been before," she says. "Because of the interpretation of the board of clemency, that's not the way it turned out. It's hurtful to me because I've been an extreme advocate."

Richardson won't say whether she will introduce new legislation to fix the wording.

George Beard, director of the Board of Executive Clemency, says the board doesn't make decisions based on legislative intent.

"Where does the road of good intention go?" he asks. "I don't do things on intentions. I would be out of my mind."Furthermore, Beard says Richardson's contention that she didn't realize this law would help only Herriman is false. He says he advised her exactly what the change from "or" to "and" would do.

"The only person out of the 25 or 26 applicants we got that this law will affect is one person -- and everybody knew it."

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Amanda Scioscia
Contact: Amanda Scioscia