By Andrew Cohen
Marisa González ’05 will be hard-pressed to take a more memorable car ride than the one she enjoyed June 15 with Karen Narita. After spending more than 26 years in the Central California Women’s Facility for her role in a murder committed by her abusive husband, Narita was released on parole and driven home to Southern California by González, who had been working to free her since 2005.
González directs the California Habeas Project (CHP), which seeks to enhance justice for domestic violence survivors incarcerated for crimes related to their past experience of abuse. Most of her work involves supporting and training pro bono attorneys, and Narita was her only client.
“It was surreal,” González said. “I had only seen Karen in prison, so taking her away from there was an incredible feeling. We went to a restaurant in Fresno, got some things at Target, and the whole time we just kept looking at each other in amazement.”
Narita’s husband and two of his associates beat and killed a man who owed him money. At her husband’s insistence, Narita participated in a limited way in the beating and accompanied the men as they drove the victim out to the desert, where her husband shot and killed him. Too afraid of her husband’s abuse to stop him or tell the police afterward, Narita was later arrested and convicted of second degree murder as an accomplice.
When González started at CHP after graduating from Berkeley Law, then-director Olivia Wang ’01 was representing Narita. González took over the case, and advocated for Narita at her May 2006 parole hearing. Narita had been granted parole in December 2004, but then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reversed the decision.
“She was denied parole in 2006,” González said. “In 2004, her commitment offense was found not to be a factor in deciding her potential dangerousness. But two years later, all of a sudden it was. It’s a very political decision, which is so frustrating as an attorney. Your client can be a model prisoner and you can prepare diligently, but often the result isn’t about your client or your work. If it’s an election year for the governor, that’s what rules the day.”
Narita was again denied parole in 2007. At her May 2008 hearing, a psychological evaluation for the first time said she posed a “low to moderate risk” to society—an increase from “low to below average.”
The prison’s senior psychologist based finding that “on not believing she’d been abused or that abuse was a contributing factor in her commitment offense,” said González. “I challenged that finding and asked the psychologist to review the parole board’s own determination that she had been abused and that her culpability was close to zero. But the senior psychologist said no, and her parole was again denied in November 2008.”
Hope emerged, however, when the California Supreme Court heard In re Lawrence, and ruled that parole boards may not base their decisions solely on a crime’s severity unless it has some predictive value for current dangerousness. Another case held that lack of insight as to why the crime was committed, or lack of remorse, could be combined with the crime’s severity as a viable reason to find dangerousness.
“All of a sudden, the parole board found that Karen had a lack of insight into the crime, which had never been mentioned before,” González said. “We challenged that with a habeas petition in Riverside Superior Court, and thankfully got a judge who asked the Attorney General’s Office to respond.”
The judge held an oral argument—González’s first time appearing in court—and found in Narita’s favor by ruling that there was no evidence to deny her parole. A new hearing was ordered, and in January 2011 Narita was found suitable for parole. She then had to wait four months for the parole board to review the decision, then another month for Governor Jerry Brown to affirm it. González notes that Brown has upheld about 80 percent of parole grants compared to roughly 25 percent by Schwarzenegger.
The mother of two and a recent grandmother, Narita is now in a transition program for former female inmates in Claremont, California. At 49, she has spent more than half her life behind bars. Her husband committed suicide in jail.
“I became very close to Karen and felt responsible for her freedom in many ways,” González said. “My dad is a former public defender and dependency attorney who has a caseload of 60–100 clients at any given time, and I recognize that I wouldn’t be able to feel so strongly about her if I had that many clients. This experience is something I’ll never forget.”