By Andrew Cohen
With a rapt Berkeley Law audience hanging on her every word, Cheryl Jones spoke candidly about what she endured before killing her abusive husband in 1985. Each revelation was more than the jury at her first murder trial knew about the ongoing violence—because attorneys could not introduce evidence of intimate partner battering and its effects until 1992.
But in 2001, a domestic violence habeas law enabled imprisoned California women to challenge their convictions through evidence of abuse and its psychological effects. After spending 21 years in prison, Jones became California’s first woman to be retried—and acquitted. Released in 2006, she is now filing a monetary claim for wrongful conviction with the California Victim Compensation Board. Julie Shah ’09 and Berkeley Law Domestic Violence Practicum Director Nancy Lemon are filing an amicus letter brief on her behalf.
“I never thought I’d get out of prison,” said Jones. “I had hope that God would let me one day tell my story to somebody, but I never believed I’d be walking through those gates.”
Jones had ample reasons to be pessimistic. Only 4 percent of imprisoned women are granted parole in California—and of that small group, more than 60 percent are returned to prison through the governor’s veto power.
Patterns of Abuse
Jones told the crowd she had been beaten daily by her first husband, with whom she has three children, and then by her second husband, Frank Orange. Jones recounted how Orange made her commit robberies with him and how he abused her sexually, mentally, and physically.
“When you’re young, and you’re in a community where kids often see their mothers getting beaten, you think that’s all just part of life,” Jones said. “I didn’t know parents weren’t supposed to beat their kids until much later in life. You’re taught to stay strong, stand by your man no matter what, things like that. I had no idea how dysfunctional that was.”
Marisa Gonzalez ’05, who works for the California Habeas Project and introduced Jones, said more than 60 percent of women in California prisons suffered domestic violence before being incarcerated—and more than 80 percent sustained some type of physical abuse.
After her first trial resulted in a hung jury, Jones pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on the advice of her attorney.
“I’d spent $30,000 of my parents’ money, and now I was looking at another trial,” Jones said. “My lawyer told me I wouldn’t serve more than 7½ years in prison if I took the deal, and if I didn’t I could very well be in prison for life. Not knowing the law and figuring my lawyer was an expert, I went along with it.”
Her abuse continued while incarcerated, Jones told the crowd, asserting that male corrections officers should be prevented from working in women’s prisons. “You have to have a strong mind in prison,” she said. “If you don’t, they’ll plainly take it away from you. People in prison have to take care of each other. We rehabilitate each other, because no one there shows an interest in helping female prisoners in any way.”
A New Opportunity
With the passage of the domestic violence habeas law in 2001, eligible women convicted before August 29, 1996 could challenge past convictions. In early 2002, lawyers working with San Francisco non-profits began making presentations at California women’s prisons. Because Jones fit all three criteria—tried before the cut-off date, in jail via a plea bargain, and imprisoned for harming her domestic partner—Jones had a new chance for freedom.
After harboring resentment and regret from her dealings with the lawyer at her first trial in 1985, Jones became exhilarated—and pleasantly stunned—at how quickly her fortunes with the legal profession could change.
Public defenders Greg Spiering and Kelle Malone-Westbrook, with pro bono support from other attorneys and law students, persuaded the jury at Jones’ new trial to reject her murder change from 21 years earlier. Sacramento domestic violence expert Linda Barnard also delivered key testimony to help Jones get acquitted.
For their efforts, Spiering and Malone-Westbrook shared the Charles E. Maylen III Freedom Fighter Award, given annually by the Stanislaus County Criminal Courts Bar Association.
“They were just unbelievable,” Jones said. “Greg Spiering, he had paperwork to support or disprove what every witness said during my trial. And law students, you guys are really something else. You dig deeper, you want to be the best, and you work that much harder. Please find a little time to help my other friends in prison. They have a voice that needs to be heard.”