No Mercy

A law of good intent goes unused, and proponents say that's left victims further victimized

Rebecca Wardlow met her future husband when she was a 16-year-old girl whose world was limited to the boundaries of her hometown of Lufkin in the piney woods of East Texas. She and Johnny Wardlow were married a year later.

Both had jobs with insurance companies, and for the first few years their life together went smoothly. But after the couple had a son, Rebecca Wardlow says, Johnny started hanging out in bars and sometimes not coming home at night. When he did come home, things really got bad.

"You finally get to the point where you stop calling the police, because once the police leave it gets worse," Wardlow says as she reflects on the years of physical, sexual and mental abuse she says she suffered at the hands of Johnny Wardlow.

In the 1970s and 1980s there was no overnight shelter for battered women in Lufkin. In 1976, with the help of her mother and sister, Wardlow fled with her son to California. But her husband tracked them down in two days and brought them back to East Texas. And for a time their relationship actually did improve. Johnny checked himself into a mental hospital, and upon his release the couple received marriage counseling for a year. But before long the cycle of violence resumed.

"But this time he knew I would leave," says Wardlow, "so he started using weapons to threaten me and my family. He would tell me how he could kill me and cut me up into little bitty pieces and hide me in the woods of East Texas, and that nobody would find me. And even if they did, big deal, he had been in a mental institution. He'd go back for a couple of years and that would be it."

On Saturday, January 19, 1985, Rebecca Wardlow once again decided she had enough. The night before, she says, Johnny had raped her and told her he was going to kill her. Wardlow told him she was leaving. He told her she was not -- at least not the way she planned.

"He told me I could leave in a pine box, but that was the only way that I would ever leave," recalls Wardlow. "So I walked down the hall, and I got the [rifle] and I shot him."

Rebecca Wardlow was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison. During her trial there was no mention of the abuse she had suffered during her 17-year marriage since, at the time, state law did not allow it. (The law has since been changed and a history of abuse -- battered women syndrome, as it's clinically termed -- is now admissible as a defense in such cases.) Wardlow was imprisoned just short of five years before being paroled in August 1990. She now works as a volunteer in the domestic violence division of the Houston Police Department.

Eight months after Wardlow was released the Texas Legislature passed State Concurrent Resolution 26, a measure with the power to clear the names of Wardlow and other victims of abuse who have been convicted of murder or manslaughter. Similar legislation had been vetoed by then-Governor Bill Clements two years earlier, but Governor Ann Richards signed SCR 26 into law. Thanks to its enactment, a killer can apply for clemency from the governor if domestic violence played a part in the homicide that led to her or his conviction.

But according to figures compiled by the Texas Council on Family Violence, out of the approximately 300 current and former inmates (some, like Wardlow, have been paroled) who have applied for clemency under the new law, only 75 cases have been reviewed by the state Board of Pardon and Paroles which, along with the Council on Family Violence, is charged with administering the clemency program. Out of those 75, the board has passed six cases on to the governor. Richards has rejected three. The other three remain on her desk awaiting action.

By comparison, 71 women have been granted clemency since 1978 in the 21 other states that have similar laws, according to the National Clearing House for Battered Women. Many of the activists and groups in this state who originally supported the measure and hailed its passage as a progressive landmark for Texas now acknowledge SCR 26 has been an unqualified failure.

"It's incredibly depressing," says Debby Tucker, the executive director of the Texas Council on Family Violence. "We didn't realize we were creating something that had absolutely no infrastructure."

According to Tucker, there are two main reasons why the law has failed to result in clemency for even one victim of domestic violence. The first, she says, is the vague wording of the measure itself. In one section the law says the governor will "direct the Board of Pardons and Paroles, in consultation with the Texas Council on Family Violence ... to investigate the cases of all persons who pled or were convicted of murder or manslaughter when the offense was directly related to victimization by domestic violence ...."

The problem, says Tucker, is that the law is unclear on the meaning of "in consultation." Because of that lack of clarity, the parole board refuses to open the files of clemency applicants to Tucker. Without access to the files, Tucker and her staff have difficulty arguing that an applicant should be granted clemency.

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