On August 3, 1995, 23-year-old Kelly Savage was making last-minute plans to leave her abusive husband, Mark Savage. A few weeks before, Kelly had contacted a battered-women’s organization for advice on how to leave her husband. “Act as normal as possible,” they told her, a common tactic given to women seeking to evade their abusive spouse’s suspicion. For the next few weeks, Kelly quietly amassed what she needed to leave—birth certificates for her two young children (Justin, who was three, and Krystal, who was almost two), medications, and clothes—all of which she hid so that Mark would not find them. She purchased bus tickets to Los Angeles dated the next day, August 4.
That afternoon, Kelly left to cash a check and pick up a few items for their departure. While she was out, she called Mark and asked him what size vacuum bags they needed. In a sworn statement, Kelly said, “I thought that by asking about vacuum bags, Mark would think that I was planning to stick around to use them.” Instead, Mark told her to come home because Justin, her three-year-old son, was not breathing. Medical experts determined that his death was caused by physical abuse.
Like many abusers, Mark had escalated in the days leading up to Kelly’s planned escape. While he had always been violent—he had a habit of throwing Kelly onto the bed and choking her—he had recently tied Kelly to a couch and tried to carve his name into her ankle. Neighbors called the police twice based on the noise they heard. The night before, possibly because he knew Kelly was planning to leave, he had beaten Justin severely enough to possibly cause the brain injuries that killed him. When Kelly returned home and found Justin lifeless, Mark tackled her and threatened to kill her if she called 9-1-1. She did so anyway.
Both Kelly and Mark were tried for Justin’s murder, found guilty, and sentenced to life without parole. Kelly has been in prison now for 19 years, and her pro bono attorneys have recently filed a habeas petition for a new hearing, which is being opposed by California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris. Their argument: The jury never heard about Kelly’s long and painful history of abuse, evidence which shows that Kelly’s case was a textbook example of intimate-partner battering.
According to statistics provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there were 186 women serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences in July 2013. This represents about 3 percent of all inmates statewide. The Sentencing Project reported that same year that there are over 5,300 women nationally serving life and life without parole sentences, reflecting an increase of about 14 percent since 2008. About 300 of these women were sentenced to LWOP, which means that California’s prisons alone contain about half of America’s female inmates serving LWOP sentences.
As Kelly’s case shows, a common characteristic of women sentenced to LWOP is their history of abuse. While there’s no exact count of how many women in prison have been physically or sexually abused, most place the odds around 85 to 90 percent—disproportionately high compared to men. As the length of sentence increases, so do the odds that a woman has been abused. Among all women in prison, women who have been sentenced to LWOP sentences are the most likely to have been abused, more so than women serving non-life sentences and men serving life sentences, said Professor Margaret Leigey, a criminologist at The College of New Jersey who has studied LWOP sentencing.
On the surface, the numbers seem overwhelmingly higher. Professor Heidi Rummel, who directs the Post-Conviction Justice Project at the University of Southern California Law School, which assists those convicted of serious crimes, said that, among the women she represented—those sentenced to life or LWOP sentences—the rate of physical and sexual abuse is “basically 100 percent.”
Read full article: Pishko, Jessica. “Serving Life for Surviving Abuse“. The Atlantic. 26 January 2015.