Liyah Birru shot and injured her husband after what she says was months of physical abuse. Now she is being processed for deportation to her home country of Ethiopia.
She has one last hope to stay in the United States: Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Newsom has been giving heightened consideration to pardon requests from people targeted for deportation, prompted largely by the Trump administration’s widespread crackdown on immigrants, especially those with criminal records.
Of the 14 people Newsom has pardoned since taking office in January, three have been refugees in the process of being removed from the country by federal immigration officials. The governor took the time to call one of those immigrants and spoke to the family of another in federal custody.
“I have petitions for many, many others that are pending or we’re considering,” Newsom said recently. “Good people can disagree, but I will continue to consider that and put a lot of weight on that — deportation.”
Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, issued 273 pardons in his final year in office, with at least 19 going to people who faced or feared deportation.
A pardon from the governor restores legal rights and, in most cases, eliminates the grounds for deportation for immigrants who are legal permanent residents.
Newsom has repeatedly criticized President Trump as an anti-immigrant “demagogue” who stokes racial division to spread fear and anxiety, and in response has adopted a policy established by Brown to use the governor’s pardon authority — granted to the chief executive by the California Constitution — to shield certain refugees and legal immigrants with a criminal history from facing deportation.
Birru’s case, however, promises to test the traditional bounds of executive clemency in California. The act of forgiveness has been almost exclusively reserved for people who have spent years proving they were fit, productive members of society after being released from prison.
The three immigrants Newsom pardoned had all been out of prison for more than a decade. That was long enough to demonstrate that they had been “living an upright life,” Newsom said in his official pardons for each.
Birru hasn’t had that chance.
The 35-year-old Ethiopian native, who came to the United States in 2014 as a legal resident, has been behind bars since shooting her husband in the back eight months after her arrival. After completing her four-year sentence in state prison, Birru was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and prepped for deportation.
Birru’s attorney, Anoop Prasad, said Newsom has an opportunity to correct an injustice against a woman with no other history of violence or wrongdoing, even while in prison.
Birru’s husband, Silas D’Aloisio, has denied abusing her. But Prasad argues in the pardon application that Birru felt trapped in an abusive marriage and shot her husband in desperation, seeing no other means of escape.
“She was forced into a situation where she really didn’t have a choice,” said Prasad, an immigration attorney for the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “It’s not like she poses a danger to society.”
Civil rights organizations across Northern California have taken up Birru’s cause, launching a “Free Liyah” campaign that gathered more than 35,000 signatures on a petition urging Newsom to pardon her.
“We’re here today to affirm that black lives matter. That black women matter. That black immigrant women matter,” Marena Blanchard of Color of Change, a civil rights group, said during a July rally outside the governor’s office at the state Capitol.
Aylaliya “Liyah” Birru owned a gift and clothing shop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when she first met D’Aloisio, a Marine stationed at the U.S. Embassy, in 2011. After dating for close to a year, the two married in Ethiopia. When D’Aloisio was reassigned to the United States, Birru had to wait two years for a spousal visa before she could join him at the couple’s apartment in Roseville, just outside Sacramento.
Within weeks, Birru said, her husband started berating her, calling her a “slut” and “whore,” according to court records. Birru said D’Aliosio, in fits of rage, cut up her clothes, threw her against a wall, broke her laptop computer, threatened to have her deported and punched her in the ribs, court records show.
D’Aliosio denied the allegations, according to court records. He did not respond to requests to comment for this article.
Birru said she wanted to go to a shelter for victims of domestic violence but that without a car or much money she was unable to flee. She knew no one nearby she could turn to for help. She once asked her husband to take her to a shelter but he refused, she claimed in court records.
“I consider myself a strong woman. I don’t know how I allowed myself to be controlled,” Birru said in an interview with The Times from Yuba County Jail, where she is being held in ICE custody. “I wondered how people got into these situations, and then I was [in one] myself. I didn’t even know it.”
On the morning of Dec. 14, 2014, Birru and D’Aliosio engaged in a heated argument after she accused him of being unfaithful. Birru told police that her husband pushed her against a wall, struck her in ribs and pulled her hair. Officers called to the apartment later reported that her face was bruised and swollen and her lower lip bloodied, court records show.
Birru went to the bedroom and grabbed her husband’s handgun from the closet.
Birru told authorities she removed all the bullets from the gun, or so she thought, went to the living room to confront him and then pulled the trigger “so it would make a sound to say, ‘Pay attention.’”
However, the gun still had a bullet in the chamber and it fired, striking D’Aliosio in the back and puncturing one of his lungs. He fell out of an open sliding glass door and collapsed. D’Aliosio has since recovered, at least partly, and was interviewed during her sentencing process.
Marriage and family therapist Linda Barnard, who evaluated Birru for the defense during the criminal trial, said she was a victim of “intimate partner battering,” which led directly to her shooting her husband.
“It is a common myth that battered women can, and should, just leave the relationship if it is really so bad,” Barnard said in her report submitted to the court. “In this case, Lylaliya had nowhere to go and no support system.”
The prosecutor disputed Birru’s account of the shooting, saying a cellphone audio recording she made of the incident indicated that she loaded the gun and “racked” it, sliding a bullet into the firing chamber, before firing, a conclusion Birru disputes.
Birru pleaded no contest to assault with a firearm. Her attorney asked for probation in consideration of the “almost daily physical and verbal abuse” she endured.
The probation report conducted on behalf of the court, however, concluded that Birru “had an opportunity to remove herself from the alleged physical abuse and call 911, however, she chose to access a firearm.”
Placer County Superior Court Judge Eugene Gini Jr. concluded that much of the abuse Birru reported was not corroborated by the evidence and sentenced her to prison. A California Court of Appeal upheld the sentence.
“The evidence that was the basis for the prosecution demonstrated that the motive for Defendant Birru’s action was jealousy,” said Jeffrey Wilson of the Placer County district attorney’s office. “The evidence clearly showed that she shot the victim in the back while he was fleeing from the home and that he posed no immediate threat to the defendant.”
Because she was convicted of a violent felony, Birru’s current attorney said she was immediately flagged for deportation. An immigration judge already has ordered her sent back to Ethiopia, a decision currently under appeal.
Birru said the political unrest in Ethiopia has her worried about what would happen if she is sent back.
“It’s not the best place right now,” she said. “They will look into who I am. That’s what the government does.”
Newsom now faces the difficult task of weighing the immediacy of Birru’s deportation and whether her allegations of abuse were given adequate consideration against the severity and violence of the crime she was convicted of just four years ago.
Facing similar petitions, more governors nationwide are considering whether to use their pardon powers to counteract Trump’s immigration policies and to correct systemic injustices in the courts, said Jane Shim of the Immigrant Defense Project in New York, which launched a special initiative to increase clemency applications for people facing deportation.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has issued dozens of pardons to immigrants while criticizing the Trump administration’s threats to “tear families apart with deportation.” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in December also pardoned five Iraq immigrants to prevent the Trump administration from deporting them.
Shim’s organization wants governors to use the clemency process not just to reward successful rehabilitation but also to correct bias in the criminal justice system, such as the outsized percentage of blacks and Latinos sentenced to long prison sentences for relatively minor drug crimes.
Among the most misjudged are victims of domestic violence who lash out at or kill their abusers, said Kathleen Brown, a professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and expert on sexual assault. That’s why there is an ongoing national effort to have governors revisit those cases through the clemency process, she said.
A California law passed in 2018 and signed by Gov. Brown requires that the state Board of Parole Hearings give expedited review to pardon requests from people facing deportation.
Newsom’s office has turned Birru’s case over to the board for review, and an investigator has already interviewed her about her allegations of abuse.
Daniel Zingale, one of Newsom’s senior advisors, meet briefly with Birru’s supporters when they dropped off their stack of petitions at the Capitol.
He assured them that the governor takes the clemency process very seriously.
“The failed policies of mass incarceration are no longer the dominant, the only narrative here,” Zingale told them. “So that changes all these discussions about everything that has to do with criminal justice or survivors or pardons.”