From inside a California prison, a group of women convicted of murder is working to change the way we think about domestic violence. Jessica Bennett looks at a new documentary that tells their story.
When Brenda Clubine killed her husband in 1983, there were 11 restraining orders against him and a warrant for his arrest. He’d put her in the ER more than once—tossing her across the room, fracturing her skull, and puncturing her lungs. But “domestic violence” was scarcely on the public radar back then: local police considered it a problem to be worked out in private; there was no hotline to call and few shelters to escape to. So when Brenda says her husband locked her in a hotel room and told her to hand over her wedding ring—so it would be “harder to identify her body”—Brenda knew she had only one option: she had to kill him first.
Her husband, a retired cop who was twice her size, lay down on the bed, and Brenda saw her chance. “Everything started flashing before my eyes,” Brenda, now 63, remembers. “I started thinking about my son, and I thought, how could I have ended up here?” She grabbed an open wine bottle and swung it toward him, but he grabbed it. She backed up and swung again—connecting with his forehead. “All I remember from that point is grabbing my keys, my ring, my shoes, and running six miles down Colorado Avenue home.”
Brenda would spend 26 years in prison for her husband’s murder—the blow to his head shattered his skull. At her trial, a judge would not permit a psychologist to testify about her mental state, nor friends or doctors who’d witnessed the physical scars of her abuse. Battered women’s syndrome, at the time, was still an untested theory (it remains highly controversial). So Brenda would face a sentence of 17 years to life—trading, as she puts it, “one prison for another.” But Brenda, who was once a licensed vocational nurse, would also change the way lawmakers think about domestic violence in this country—where one in four women is a victim of abuse.
Clubine is one of half a dozen women featured in a new documentary Sin by Silence, which premieres on Investigation Discovery on Oct. 17—the directorial debut of filmmaker Olivia Klaus. Set on the sprawling brick campus of the high-security California Institution for Women, the state's oldest women’s prison, it tells the story of the prison support group Clubine founded—aimed at women like her, who’ve been imprisoned for killing the men they once loved.
Over the course of the one-hour film, we hear from LaVelma, whose husband was pastor by day and tormentor by night—but who was too ashamed to tell anybody what was going on (she's serving 25 years to life). We meet Joanne, a mother of three, who—like many women stuck in a cycle of abuse—tried endlessly to leave but couldn’t support her children on her own. (Leaving an abuser, say experts, can often be more dangerous than staying.) She is serving a 15 year to life sentence. And we hear the dramatic story of Glenda Crosley, a soft-spoken, gray-haired grandmother who—after 25 years of marriage to her husband, Sam—ran him over in the parking lot of a Bakersfield, Calif., shopping center, as bystanders looked on. “It’s a hard thing, even today,” says the woman, now 65, speaking softly into the camera. “Why did I do it?” Glenda has been in prison for 24 years.
Over the years, Clubine's own story has been criticized, by both lawmakers and the press. But she firmly believes that, in her case, anyway, she had no other option. And so, from her eight- by six-foot prison cell, she began organizing the women around her, shocked by how many of them had similar stories. By 1989, a group of 60 women—calling themselves “Convicted Women Against Abuse—was formally recognized by the state as the first inmate-run support group in the nation. Brenda launched a letter-writing campaign to any politician whose address she could get her hands on. And she started sharing her cellmates’ stories. “Murder is what defines us: section 187 of the penal code,” she tells Newsweek. “But these are normal, everyday people. Inmates, but also victims. We wanted our stories to be heard.”
Clubine’s group would ultimately make headlines—most prominently when the California Legislative Women’s Caucus called on them to testify before a series of legislative hearings. Clubine, along with 10 others from the group, told their stories—explaining how, in court, they were forbidden from presenting evidence of the abuse, and how the support group had helped them. “Battered women’s syndrome” was the term used to describe the mindset of a woman who’d suffered prolonged abuse back then. As a result of the women’s testimonies, in 1992 the California legislature formally deemed it an admissible defense in court. “When most of these women were convicted, there were no laws in place to bring evidence of abuse into a court trial, not even as a self-defense claim,” says Klaus. “So juries saw only the snapshot of the crime.”
In the two decades since that first battle, 10 states have added battered women’s laws to their books, according to the director, and battered women’s syndrome—now called “battering and its effects” in most states—has been used as a defense in hundreds of cases. But the 1992 law was not retroactive—meaning Brenda, and the vast majority of the women in the group, remained behind bars, which is where Klaus comes in. She learned about the group only recently, in 2001, after coming to terms with a friend’s own domestic struggle. By 2003, she was making regular trips to the high-security prison campus, which houses 1,900—the guards leading her down a long, sterile hallway to the conference room where the women would meet weekly.
At first, it was a volunteer mission: Klaus wanted to learn, and to help. But the women had other plans: they wanted her to tell their story. “I realized these women could have been my neighbors or my sister, and I knew I couldn’t turn my back on them,” she says.
Sin by Silence—a reference to an Abraham Lincoln quote—is Klaus’s answer to the problem, its first $1,000 in funding cobbled together from the women’s own 10-cent-an-hour prison wages. It would be the beginning of a years-long filming process, through which Klaus would see appeals denied, paroles overturned—and, ultimately, three inmates, including Brenda, released by the California governor in 2008. In total, more than 30 women from the group have been released from prison.
But for those not so lucky, the support group remains strong: with 72 members and the support of the prison’s officials. They continue to meet monthly. Brenda, meanwhile, has started a new life: she remarried last year and has reunited with her son, now 30, who had been put up for adoption after her conviction. She is a grandmother, living just south of San Diego.
But her heart remains with the women she left behind. Her latest venture is an outside support group to advocate on their behalf called Every 9 Seconds—referring to the frequency with which a woman in this country is abused. Since she launched the group earlier this year, with Klaus’s help (she is a member of the board), she’s spoken at local women’s shelters and met with legislative advocates. Her group offers training to law enforcement and works to educate young women about prevention. But in the back of her mind, always, will be the women who helped her endure. “These women are the forgotten ones,” she says. “Those who didn’t have any choice but to protect their lives.”