Criminologist helped get sex slave out of prison

Maria Suarez

Maria Suarez

The case of Maria Suarez, a sex trafficking victim who was unjustly imprisoned by her abuser – then unjustly imprisoned for 22 years in the California Institution for Women for the 1981 death of her abuser – is notable for many reasons.

Hers is a case that has left many asking: How did this happen?

Suarez’s horrifying experience — imprisoned from the age of 16 for five years in the home of a 67-year-old Azusa man who repeatedly raped her — reveals how she slipped through several cracks. It also shows how, subsequently, she was betrayed by a justice system that instead of aiding her put her behind bars for life.

But her case also reveals a ray of hope. That’s because someone – Elizabeth Dermody Leonard – was paying attention. And she helped kick off the process that would eventually free Suarez, now 49.

Friday, Suarez spoke before a group gathered at the Borders bookstore in Costa Mesa brought together by the nonprofit Live2free, a group that seeks to raise awareness about human trafficking. And it was Leonard, a sociologist and criminologist who teaches at Vanguard University, whom Suarez acknowledged as her “inspiration” during her talk.

“She’s the one who actually started to open up files (of people who) were wrongfully convicted… And a lot of people started coming out, to be free. And… I thank you for that because you are part of my freedom,” Suarez told Leonard, who was in the audience.

The two women met for the first time in 1995. At the time, Leonard was working on her dissertation, researching the cases of women who had been imprisoned for the death of their abuser. It was a unique study on a rarely examined population of women who languished, voiceless, behind the walls of their prison in Corona.

Or, rather, that was their situation before Leonard showed up. Initially, she spent six months observing their support group, Convicted Women Against Abuse. Then she interviewed them one by one.

“It was very hard to open up to other people,” Suarez told Leonard, publicly, on Friday. “But by you being there… you made me feel secure.

“…You showed me that you cared. So, actually, I thought that was a light for me…”

Leonard, through her research, discovered that of the 42 women in her study, all had been held responsible for the death of their batterer even though about a third of them had not been the person who killed the batterer. That was the case in Suarez’s situation, where the man who enslaved her was killed by a male neighbor, who implicated Suarez in the homicide. Years later, the man and his wife recanted.

Leonard also discovered that many of the women in her study were (like Suarez) convicted of first degree murder. At that time, a woman accused of killing could not submit evidence that the person killed had, in life, been their abuser or batterer. In 1992, California law changed, making so-called “burning bed” evidence admissible.

“Looking back at their cases, I could say that most of the women, if they had a fair trial at the time, many of them would not have been convicted,” says Leonard, who published her study in 2002 in the book “Convicted Survivors: The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill.”

“If anything, some of them might have been convicted on manslaughter, but certainly not first degree murder.”

To publicize her findings, Leonard took her research to conferences and published articles in academic journals. In 2000, she was asked to testify in a state hearing on prisons where she presented her research to a legislative committee. Leonard recalls that the committee was “appalled” by what she told them. She also shared another important finding: that many of these women were given psychotropic medications while in county jail (with no medical or psychological evaluation) with side effects that “profoundly” affected their ability to testify on the stand.

“I created the context for them to understand what the women’s stories meant, that these were not just isolated things,” Leonard says.

After the hearing, Leonard says an investigator from the state’s Board of Prison Terms asked if Leonard would provide the board with a list of names of the women inmates she had interviewed. Suarez was on that list and her case was subsequently re-examined.

“My case was one of the ones that was picked by the parole board investigator. When they investigated, they found out everything that I had been saying was true,” says Suarez, who was approved for parole in 2001, but denied by then-Gov. Gray Davis.

In 2004, it was Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who granted Suarez parole, but her saga did not end there. Although she was a legal resident, the felony on her record prompted the Department of Homeland Security to detain her for deportation.

Many lawmakers, advocates and experts like Leonard wrote letters of support. Suarez was granted a temporary visa designed for human trafficking victims. Last year, the courts reduced her criminal conviction from first degree murder, which carries a 25 years to life sentence, to involuntary manslaughter.

Had she been convicted of involuntary manslaughter initially, her sentence might have been a year in prison, says her lawyer, Charles Song.

For now, that’s all behind Suarez. She obtained a green card this year and is counseling victims of abuse and abusers.

The first time Leonard saw Suarez after Suarez’ release was in the spring of 2006, when Suarez returned to her former prison to see a play based on Leonard’s research. Leonard says she strives to either talk by phone or meet the former inmates in person at least once after their release. She notes that their voices, among other things, change dramatically.

“It’s like they’re 20 years younger.”

When she saw Suarez for the first time as a free woman, Leonard noted the difference: Shoulders back; a confident stance, a smile.

“She came back to the prison to help others. I can’t imagine the type of courage it takes to walk back (behind) those walls, to hear the sound of the door clanging shut,” Leonard says.

“But she knew that it gave hope to the others, and she wanted to encourage hope.”



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