Herhold: The long, sad story of a woman released after 27 years

The original article can be found on mercurynews.com here.

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

by Scott Herhold

Wanda Brown killed Willie Kelley. There was never any question. In a frenzy in 1984, the 22-year-old woman stabbed the San Francisco shopkeeper 64 times with a pocket knife. As lawyers say, it looked like bad facts. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. A judge gave her 16 years to life.

With no evidence of premeditation, her lawyer, a San Francisco public defender, told her she'd likely be out in eight and a half years. That was the standard back in the mid-'80s.

Then California politics lurched toward an unforgiving stance on crime. More than 27 years later, Wanda Brown was still at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, rejected three times for parole.

How she was released three weeks ago owes much to a San Jose attorney named Erin Smith, a civil lawyer with Hoge Fenton Jones & Appel, who took the case pro bono, without requiring Wanda to pay.

Smith took advantage of a recent law that allows expert testimony on domestic abuse to be considered years later in cases like Wanda's. Wanda was nothing if not a victim of domestic violence -- though, oddly, Willie Kelley was not the perpetrator.

Wanda was exposed to violence early in her life: Her family members would sometimes fly out of control and beat her. When she was 15 years old, she left for Mississippi with her then-boyfriend, Eddie, who beat her with a two-by-four that left scars that are still visible.

Abusive relationship

Eddie was almost kind compared with the man she eventually ended up with in San Francisco, Arthur, who sent her to the hospital three times, once with a miscarriage. When she refused to earn money for his drug habit, often through prostitution, Arthur beat her. A week before Willie Kelley's death, Arthur cut her face and hands with a knife.

Desperate to leave him, Wanda stayed briefly with a friend of Arthur's family. When Arthur tracked her down there, she fled onto the street, telling him she was headed to the laundromat. Then she encountered Kelley, 71, a shopkeeper whom neighbors remember as having a likeness to Arthur.

Wanda knew Kelley: He had been one of her customers as a prostitute. According to her lawyer's pleadings, he offered to care for her if she would have sex with him.

She agreed reluctantly. But after the sex, he reneged and started pushing her out of the store. "She was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder," Smith told me. "She was so desperate, so afraid, so angry, that she snapped. She impulsively killed him."

The study of domestic violence was then still in its infancy. And there was no expert testimony then about the abuse Wanda suffered. She did not have a perfect record in her first years of imprisonment, though she made determined attempts to improve herself later.

In 2006, newish law school graduate Erin Smith got involved in her case. Then working for the big San Francisco law firm of Covington & Burling, the young civil attorney had a passion for domestic violence cases. And after talking to the Habeas Project, which seeks justice for domestic violence survivors, she was given Wanda's.

Old witnesses


To make a case under the new law, Smith had to prove Wanda had been battered.

That required running down old witnesses, some of whom were no longer around. With Covington & Burling's help, and that of her co-counsel, Maggie May, she also engaged the services of a psychologist, Linda Barnard, who spent seven hours interviewing Wanda.

Barnard concluded that Wanda's encounter with Kelley triggered memories of past beatings. "The person experiences the current trauma simultaneously with the effects of the prior traumas," Barnard wrote.

In early April, Smith and a prosecutor from San Francisco County argued the matter before Superior Court Judge Newton Lam. The prosecution contended that the evidence of domestic abuse had little value: Willie Kelley, after all, was not Wanda's batterer.

Then came a bombshell. Assistant district attorney Braden Woods called Smith and agreed to have Wanda released for time served.

Wanda eventually entered a new plea to voluntary manslaughter.

After two days, Smith finally got a call through to Wanda at the Chowchilla prison. Wanda sobbed for a long time. Then she asked, "For real? For real? You're not pulling my leg?"

"I wouldn't kid about something like this," Smith said.

Late in the afternoon on Friday, April 13, Wanda Brown was released onto the Bryant Street sidewalk outside the San Francisco County jail, where she had been transferred from Chowchilla. She went to live with her mother in Union City. She and Smith, who had become good friends, celebrated Wanda's 50th birthday with a steak dinner.

Justice served


In a case like this, you can debate a psychologist's opinion. You can question the impact of domestic violence. But I have no doubt justice was served. Wanda never planned the attack with malice.

In a brief conversation, Wanda told me that she would walk away from a similar situation. And she wants to help others. "There is help, and you don't have to accept abuse," she said.

Both Covington & Burling and Hoge Fenton, which Smith joined in 2010, deserve credit for letting Smith work pro bono on the case.

"It's a terrible thing that happened," Smith told me, when I asked how she would answer questions from people who question why a killer should be released. "She did commit that act, and she paid gravely for it. It was instantaneous, an act that she committed in the heat of passion. It wasn't really a conscious act. Under the law, that's voluntary manslaughter, with a maximum of 12 years. She served 27-and-one-half years."