Brenda Denise Aris, who killed her sleeping husband eight years ago, on Tuesday became the first convicted murderer in California to earn an early release from prison by arguing that she committed her crime because she was a battered woman.
A three-member panel of the Board of Prison Terms decided unanimously that Aris was a suitable candidate for parole after hearing from Aris and several relatives of the murder victim, who issued emotional pleas on behalf of the killer.
Aris’ three daughters, ages 11, 13 and 16, listened to the proceedings and let out cries of joy upon hearing the decision.
The panel set a parole date for Aris that could allow her to be released from prison in less than a year. Had Gov. Pete Wilson and the parole board not granted her leniency, Aris probably would have remained behind bars at least until 2000.
It now appears that Aris will serve a total of 8 1/2 years in custody on her second-degree murder conviction. Penal officials said the average time in prison for that offense is 12 years.
Aris’ attorney, Chee Davis, characterized the decision as a precedent-setting victory for battered women, although she said she was disappointed that Aris would not be released sooner. “There is absolutely no reason to keep this woman incarcerated another day,” she said.
But Theodore Rich, executive officer of the Board of Prison Terms, said the earliest parole date the board could have given Aris was July 25, 1995. Under the decision rendered Tuesday, she can get out Aug. 18, 1995.
Questioned at the hearing about the events that led her to kill, Brenda Aris said that for nearly 10 years she endured beatings from an increasingly violent husband. Finally, on a warm August night in 1986, as she nursed a swollen face and blackened eyes, she said she decided she could endure no more.
Fearing that her husband might kill her when he awoke, she said she pumped five bullets into his body as he lay sleeping.
“I shot him once and he jumped like he was coming back at me,” she said. “I closed my eyes and just kept shooting.”
Aris’ allegations were confirmed by members of the murder victim’s family.
“We’ve seen her bruises, witnessed the beatings,” said Betty Aris Cooke, Rick Aris’ sister. " . . . We thought one day he’d kill her, not the other way around.”
Said another sister, Linda Roccia: “I loved my brother and I always will, but I believe he was the meanest person I’ve ever known.”
The slain man’s father, Leslie Aris, did not testify but submitted a letter urging the panel to release his daughter-in-law so she could care for her children.
“If I can forgive her for killing my only son, then why can’t the state?” Aris wrote. “It’s time to let the whole family heal.”
Brenda Aris is one of nearly 100 women in California who say they were driven to commit their crimes after years of physical and emotional abuse. She is the only prisoner among them to win the sympathy of the governor for this argument.
Last year, responding to petitions urging him to recognize battered women’s syndrome as a consideration for clemency, Wilson reviewed petitions from 19 women. He commuted the sentences of Aris and another woman, the latter for reasons unrelated to the abuse she suffered. Six cases are pending in his office and 65 are awaiting investigation.
Wilson said Aris was the only one who could reasonably claim battered women’s syndrome as a mitigating factor.
Describing Aris’ husband, Rick, as a man “chronically guilty of the most extraordinary cruelty,” Wilson in May, 1993, took the unusual step of commuting her sentence from 15 years to life to 12 years to life. Wilson, noting that his decision would mean she would be eligible for parole much sooner, said he hoped the Board of Prison Terms would release her.
Although the parole panel did not give a reason for its decision, panel members indicated that they had been influenced by some of the same factors that had impressed the governor.
But to a Riverside County deputy district attorney, who was the only person to request that Aris not be paroled, the shooting was not an act of desperation but cold-blooded, premeditated murder.
“Everything about this killing shows a callous disregard for human life,” Barbara Hayden Marmor said. “Though this inmate has been a model prisoner . . . she does remain a killer . . . and she deserves to remain in prison until she has learned her lesson.”
Marmor said “battered women’s syndrome” should not become a license to kill, and argued that women share some responsibility if they remain with spouses who abuse them.
Interviewed after the hearing in an office in the administrative wing of the California State Prison for Women, Aris said Marmor showed a lack of understanding about battered women. Wives constantly beaten by husbands, she said, become “their total possession. They have total control over you.”
Aris said she will not really believe she is going to be released until she walks through the prison gate.
“But before this hearing, I could not see the future,” she said. “Now I can see the future. Now I can make plans.”
The panel’s decision is subject to confirmation by the governor, who is expected to approve Aris’ early release, which he called for in his clemency order. The decision could be reversed by the full Board of Prison Terms, but that is considered unlikely.
Times staff writer Daniel M. Weintraub contributed to this story.