After spending more than a decade fighting for the release of domestic abuse victim Glenda Virgil, who was convicted of killing her abuser more than 25 years ago, USC Gould School of Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project scored an important victory this week when Gov. Jerry Brown granted her parole.
“I am so grateful to USC Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project,” Virgil said. “The students never gave up on me. I know I would have never been released without their help.”
Following a lifetime of abuse by nearly every important man in her life, Virgil shot and killed her abusive partner as he came at her with a shovel to prevent her from leaving him. Prior to her 1987 trial, two experts concluded that Virgil suffered from battered woman syndrome and had a reasonable fear for her life at the time of the crime. But the jury convicted her of second-degree murder without benefit of that expert testimony.
In 2003, a federal magistrate issued a report and recommendation that the district court grant her habeas petition alleging ineffective assistance of counsel, but the federal court declined to adopt the proposed ruling.
Since becoming eligible for parole in 1997, the Board of Parole Hearings has denied Virgil parole eight times. In January, the board again denied parole and upheld a panel’s ruling that she posed a current danger because she had been disciplined for smoking cigarettes, despite new evidence that the 66-year-old suffered from terminal cancer.
“It was a devastating loss, and we are so thrilled that the board allowed her a new hearing and that Gov. Brown recognized the equities in this case and supported her release,” said Julia Deixler, a second-year USC Gould student who represented Virgil. “She has truly reformed, and it was heartbreaking to watch her face the prospect of dying in prison. Representing her has changed my outlook on the legal system.”
The prison system has spent the past several months transporting Virgil by ambulance to daily chemotherapy treatments. She uses a wheelchair and has trouble eating. Sin by Silence, an action group formed around a documentary about women incarcerated for crimes related to their experiences of intimate partner battering, has collected nearly 55,000 signatures supporting her release.
“Given her cancer diagnosis and rehabilitation in prison, Virgil poses no danger to the public,” Deixler said. “She is a role model and mentor to other victims of childhood incest and intimate partner abuse.”
At her most recent hearing in May, the board found her suitable for parole and Brown allowed the grant to stand.
“The panel recognized that Virgil did not have a history of violent behavior, and had insight and remorse into her offense,” said Ashley Caldwell, a second-year law student who also represented Virgil. “She has served more than 25 years for defending her life and deserved to go home. We are so happy that Gov. Brown made this possible for her.”
Since its founding in 1981, the Post-Conviction Justice Project has represented more than 5,000 clients. In the 2012-13 academic year, 16 clients were released from prison thanks to the work of the project.