Only Guilty of Being Scared : Ohio governor commutes 25 sentences, revives battered women issue

Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste has commuted the sentences of 25 women who were serving time for killing or assaulting abusive husbands or boyfriends. The pardon should provoke a thoughtful debate on what is a viable defense for battered women.

The governor acted after the Ohio Supreme Court decided that women could present expert testimony describing "battered women's syndrome," the effects of repeated physical and psychological abuse. Prior to that ruling, Ohio was one of the last states to prohibit women from presenting expert testimony about physical abuse.

After the decision, the Ohio Legislature approved a law to allow the testimony in criminal trials. A similar measure died during the last session of the California Legislature. That bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Gerald R. Eaves (D-Rialto), should be reintroduced to warn men again that they cannot get away with beating women.

Some California judges allow the expert testimony in criminal trials, but it is an uncommon defense.

The women considered for clemency in Ohio had been barred from submitting expert evidence in court. To qualify for the pardon, they had to prove they had been truly abused with hospital records, police reports and testimony from witnesses. They also had to prove they were not a threat to society, and agree to perform 200 hours of community service.

Before he granted the clemency, the governor reviewed more than 100 cases. Celeste--who nearly 20 years ago turned his former Cleveland home into a battered women's shelter--also argued that a pardon would not sanction killing. His clemency acknowledged the complicated motivations of women trapped emotionally and physically, repeat victims of violence incapable of walking away, women who finally kill because they feared they will be killed.

More than one-third of all homicides of women stem from domestic abuse. The killing continues despite laws and court orders.

Men who batter women need counseling and battered women need better social and legal protections--not clemency after they have been sent to prison.

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