When Freedom Rings Hollow

Maria Suarez called me from a jail in San Pedro and said Tuesday she could see harbor boats through the window. After roughly two-thirds of her life in captivity, freedom was close enough to raise her hopes and break her heart at the same time.

Suarez, now 43, legally entered the United States from Mexico at the age of 16, only to be raped and beaten as the teenage sex slave of a man 55 years her elder. She was convicted of killing the monster, despite her claims of innocence, and finally won her parole last month after battling for years.

Now she sits in another prison, awaiting a deportation hearing scheduled for today. Suarez is a permanent legal resident, but not a U.S. citizen, and immigration law says that, with an aggravated felony on her record, she is to be deported.

"Justice," Suarez said, "is so hard to understand."

The story begins in 1976, when Suarez came north, dreaming she would find a job good enough to provide for her parents back home. She met a woman who took her to Azusa, where a man named Anselmo Covarrubias was supposedly looking for a housekeeper.

"He was old, and the house was kind of weird and spooky," said Suarez, who wondered why Covarrubias and the woman went out back to chat. "I found out he had paid for me -- $200 -- and he told me I was his slave and I was never going to leave there."

Covarrubias, known to neighbors as a witch doctor with an eye for young female immigrants, bolted the extra locks he had on every door and window.

"I started thinking, 'What am I going to do?' " Suarez said.

There wasn't much she could do. A nightmare, now in its 27th year, had only just begun.

Covarrubias repeatedly raped and beat Suarez, knocking her unconscious on the floor of his bathroom that first day. In the days, weeks and months to follow, he used intimidation, deception and brute force to dominate her.

Suarez, petrified and psychologically broken, believed in his claims of extraordinary powers -- claims he enforced over the next five years with threats to kill her, or her family, if she ever uttered a word about his deeds on the occasions he let her out of the house.

There is, alas, one piece of justice in this story, and it was delivered with a club.

A neighbor by the name of Rene Soto, 21, may have witnessed some of the abuse, and he may also have thought Covarrubias would try his black magic on Soto's wife. On Aug. 27, 1981, Soto warded off any such advance when he took a sturdy table leg and beat the living daylights out of Covarrubias.

But there was no freedom in it for Suarez. For her, it was the end of one prison term and the start of another. She admitted she had washed and hidden the murder weapon, and detectives believed she had helped plot the crime too, possibly to claim her tormentor's house for herself.

She swears those are lies.

At the time of her trial, there was no battered woman defense, and to further stack the deck against her, Suarez was represented by a hack attorney who had his own legal problems at the time and was later disbarred.

The result was predictable:

A conviction of first-degree murder; a sentence of 25 years to life.

"I felt cheated by life," Suarez told me. "I asked God, 'What did I do wrong?' "

Over the years, others asked the same question, including an unlikely set of characters. The inept lawyer admitted he'd let his client down, and even the foreman of the jury that convicted Suarez ended up on her side.

"I feel that the guilt of Maria Suarez has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt," the juror later said, criticizing various aspects of the trial, including jury instructions.

The state Board of Prison Terms recommended her parole, noting that a doctor who specialized in battered woman's syndrome had reported Suarez suffered "an extreme level of ... torture and control for the entire length of her five-year relationship with the victim."

"The victim's children," the prison board concluded, "his ex-wife, law enforcement officers and detectives involved in this case, and the jury foreman, were asked their opinion regarding the possibility of the inmate's release to parole. It is important to note that no one objected to her release."

Former L.A. County Sheriff's Department homicide detective Stanley White told me he still thinks Suarez goaded her neighbor into killing Covarrubias. But he too spoke in her defense.

"The bottom line is that she's paid for that murder in spades," said White, who thinks a good attorney would have knocked her charge down to second-degree murder or manslaughter.

Former Gov. Gray Davis, who often ignored the pleas of battered women serving time for murdering their abusers, rejected Suarez's parole in 2002. Last year, he reversed himself, but delayed the release date by a year.

After Davis was tossed out of office, the parole board tried again to turn Suarez loose, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't stand in the way.

Dec. 18 should have been a triumphant day for Suarez, who longs to visit the San Gabriel cemetery where her father lies, and to see her 85-year-old mother, who now lives in Duarte.

But despite the long-awaited release after serving 22 years, she was paroled into yet another jail, without so much as a single minute of freedom.

"It's worse here," Suarez said of the INS holding tank in San Pedro, describing a scene in which as many as 65 detainees share a single room.

Suarez said she was praying for a break, but the news on Tuesday brought her no cheer. Jessica Dominguez, her attorney, said a request to postpone today's deportation hearing had been rejected. That means her deportation could be ordered as early as today, which would give the attorney a month to appeal.

Dominguez is hoping Schwarzenegger will give her a full pardon, and a letter signed by 17 members of Congress and 28 state legislators was sent to his office Tuesday. Schwarzenegger's office didn't respond to my call.

As a last resort, U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis may introduce a bill allowing Suarez sanctuary.

Sure, Suarez said, she'll be free either way. But she hasn't set foot in Mexico since the 1970s, and she feels she has more than paid her debt. Her closest relatives are all in Los Angeles now and this is her home, even though she has been a prisoner -- of one type or another -- for all but two weeks of her 27 years in the United States.

"I'll kiss the ground," she said when I asked what she'd do if she were released in L.A. "I'll thank my father the Lord, hug my family, and go see my father's grave."

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at steve.lopez@latimes .com.

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