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.
The second problem, in Tucker's opinion, is that the board does not have the resources to adequately screen the applications in a timely fashion.
"Giving this project to the Board of Pardon and Paroles is unrealistic," says Tucker. "They do not have the staff or the commitment to the project to ever get it done. If it stays their responsibility, it will take another 15 to 20 years to review these cases. They just have too many other things on their plate that they place much more priority on."
The Press attempted to contact Dr. Mae Jackson, the chairman of the board's three-member clemency screening committee, for comment. Our calls were not returned. Likewise, Richards, who was embroiled in a tough battle for re-election with George W. Bush that will be concluded when this story appears, was unavailable to comment on the political ramifications of granting clemency to killers under the law. But the governor, in a recent interview with Channel 26, maintained the law is still a viable tool to achieve justice.
"I think the law is a very important law," Richards told the station when cornered on a campaign stop. "And I think that those people who have suffered abuse and suffered brutalization go through a hell that is beyond description. So when there is a case, though, that I think merits a pardon, they're certainly going to get it."
One of the three cases still on Richards' desk is that of Rebecca Wardlow. She refuses, perhaps wisely, to criticize the governor.
"Everybody seems to think that I need to be angry with her," says Wardlow, who's now 43. "I'm not. It's hard. Sometimes I feel like I'm dangling on a string. But I also understand what she's having to do to try and get re-elected. She's been real busy. And I understand that. I would like to get it over with, though."
The waiting is over for 22-year-old Craig Galloway.
In 1983, Galloway moved from the Houston area to the northeast Texas town of Kilgore with his mother, sister and stepfather, Van Chapman. Chapman was a pharmacist who spent most of his leisure time restoring old cars. According to Galloway, when his stepfather wasn't working on a car, Chapman was usually working him over sexually. Galloway says the first incident occurred when he was 11 and had asked for money for a movie.
"He bent me over a car door," says Galloway. "That was the first one. I remember the first time. And I remember the last time."
During the five years in between, Galloway says, his stepfather had become increasing insistent in his sexual demands. The final assault occurred on Galloway's first day as a high school junior in September 1988. Galloway says he had already decided that he would try to kill Chapman the next time he raped him. That day, after school, Galloway fell asleep in his room.
"I woke up and he was moving me," Galloway recalls. "I didn't say nothing. I didn't beg or scream. I just thought, 'Okay, this is it.'"
When Chapman finished having his way with him, Galloway cleaned up. He then got a handgun he had been practicing with, put it in his shorts and told his stepfather he was going to the garage, knowing that Chapman would follow him.
"He was priming a Thunderbird and he didn't really trust me by myself in the garage," says Galloway.
When they got to the garage, Galloway says, Chapman began inspecting a spot he had missed on the car. Galloway stood behind him.
"My mind was going like, 'Do it, don't do it, do it, don't do it," says Galloway. "But when he turned around and I pulled the gun, I knew then that I was going to do it."
Galloway shot Chapman several times.
"When I left he wasn't dead," Galloway adds. "I remember him breathing and blood flying out of his nose. Blood everywhere. He was whispering, 'Help, help, help.' And I left 'cause I wanted him to die."
During his trial Craig Galloway claimed only that he shot Van Chapman because his stepfather had attempted to rape him. He says he made no mention of the five years of abuse he had suffered because he was too embarrassed. Although evidence concerning Chapman's predilection for pornography involving young boys was introduced at the trial, Galloway was convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Galloway is currently incarcerated at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Central Unit west of Houston. He is the only male, thus far, to apply for clemency under SCR 26. Last month he received a letter from the Board of Pardons and Paroles informing him that his request for clemency would not be passed on to the governor. The letter also stated that his request had been rejected by the board last June. However, Fran Chapman, Galloway's mother, says she was told by a board official in September that only four members of the board had reviewed her son's file. Since it takes at least ten of the 18 board members to give a thumbs up or down on a clemency request, she can't understand how her son's application could have been denied in June if only four members had seen his file as of September. Galloway is eligible to re-apply for clemency next June.
"For five years, from the time he was 11 until he was 16, Craig was victimized by [his stepfather]," says Fran Chapman. "From that time until the present, he has been victimized by the state of Texas."
Bill Saban doesn't see it that way. Saban is the assistant district attorney in Rusk County who prosecuted Craig Galloway. He doesn't buy Galloway's claim of sexual abuse, describing it as just a way for Galloway "to take another bite at the apple." And, adds Saban, even if Galloway's accusations about his stepfather are true, Galloway still had no right to "assassinate" him. The bottom line, says Saban, is that there is no need for the law.
"To me the law has got built-in protections," says the prosecutor. "That's why we try the cases. That's why we have juries. That's why we have defenses. If this happened, it ought to be part of the defense. You shouldn't second-guess the jury. The facts were presented to a jury, not this board. They heard all the evidence -- about three days worth of it. Now you've got a board that's going to second-guess them. It doesn't make sense to me."
But many people believed the law did make sense, and that at least some of the victims who felt they had no choice but to take up arms against the abuse they suffered deserve some form of mercy from the state. State Senator John Whitmire of Houston plans to hold hearings early in the session to examine the status of the law.
"There are so many women, some of them kids, that are in prison due to domestic violence," says Rebecca Wardlow. "Nobody wants to admit it's an epidemic.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- This Houston Rockets Thing Is Going Nowhere
- Rice University President: Nobody Here Wants Campus-Carry
- There's No New Contract Yet, but UH's Tom Herman Says He's Sticking Around