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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. In California, dozens of women in prison may get a new chance at freedom. They're serving time for killing their abusive partners. Now, as Gloria Hillard reports, a new state law allows new evidence to be considered.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: Brenda Clubine is a 50-year-old platinum blonde with focused blue eyes and a no-nonsense demeanor. We're in a park less than a mile from the California Institution for Women. Clubine spent 26 years in prison for killing her husband. After enduring beatings and ER visits, it finally ended in a locked motel room where he told her to give him her wedding rings.

BRENDA CLUBINE: I said: Why? He said: Because tomorrow they won't be able to identify your body without them.

HILLARD: She hit him in the head with a wine bottle, and he died of blunt force trauma. She got out of prison four years ago, but many women with stories similar to Clubine's are still behind bars. How old are your daughters now?

CLUBINE: Michelle...

HILLARD: At least once a month, Clubine returns to the prison to attend the support group she started more than two decades ago: Convicted Women Against Abuse.

CLUBINE: My crime happened when I was 25.

HILLARD: Sitting in a circle are women of all ages, but the older ones stand out. Some have walkers, others have bandaged legs or arms. Other wounds are invisible.

GLENDA VIRGIL: My arrest photos show his kick prints all up and down my back.

HILLARD: Glenda Virgil is in a wheelchair. She's had back surgery and a number of medical issues that she counts off on her fingers. She's 65 and has spent close to 27 years in this prison.

VIRGIL: He had said - threatened to kill me before, but he had never said he was going to kill himself and me in the same breath, and then our dog too. He was going to take us all.

HILLARD: The prison-issued muumuu that Rosemary Dyer is wearing looks like something out of the 1950s - white polka dots on slate gray. She's 60, in prison since 1988 for killing her husband.

ROSEMARY DYER: After years and years of abuse.

HILLARD: Dyer says that in the last few years she's received letters from victims of domestic violence asking for advice. For six months, she corresponded with a young woman being abused by her baby's father. One day, the letters stopped. She later heard what happened.

DYER: He killed both of them. The only thing I could think of is what more could I have said to express to her the importance to get away?

HILLARD: About a half-dozen of the women in the support group, including Virgil and Dyer, are featured in a documentary about incarcerated battered women called "Sin By Silence."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SIN BY SILENCE")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We need (unintelligible). Our families are missing their mothers and daughters.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Not only have they survived the unspeakable, they try to keep others from following the same path that they were on.

HILLARD: The film's director sent a copy of the documentary to California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, who chairs the Domestic Violence Select Committee. After seeing the film, Ma wrote legislation she called the Sin By Silence Bills. One of the new statutes allows incarcerated victims of domestic violence to re-file for a writ of habeas corpus.

ASSEMBLYWOMAN FIONA MA: These cases were tried prior to August 29th, 1996, and back then the judge did not allow expert testimony related to battered women syndrome as part of the defense. Had they presented it today, they probably would have received no sentence or involuntary manslaughter.

CORY SALZILLO: We think it makes it too ambiguous and opens the door too broadly.

HILLARD: Cory Salzillo is the legislative director of the California District Attorneys Association. He says the new law gives too much leeway for dealing with new evidence.

SALZILLO: Originally, it was you can only bring this writ if the evidence wasn't introduced at trial. This bill would say you can also bring a writ if the evidence wasn't competent or substantial. And those terms are vague in the sense of the law.

HILLARD: The law doesn't guarantee freedom or even a hearing. It's hard to find pro bono lawyers to take the cases because the process can take years.

Back at the California Institution for Women, Glenda Virgil says since landing in a wheelchair, she's lost the one prison job she enjoyed: training service dogs. She's had one parole hearing after another, but this change in the law gives her hope.

VIRGIL: I don't think I have much life left. I'm going to fight for it, though. A year ago I didn't really much care. And I just want to be a grandma. I want to be able to hold my grandchildren.

HILLARD: The two-hour support group ends and the women file outside where the temperature has finally dropped below three digits. Under a half moon, they join other inmates strolling the familiar cement paths of the prison yard. At 9:00, it's the yard recall. The women return to their cells, locked in for the night. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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