The Louisiana Legislature meets in the state capitol in Baton Rouge. photo: Katedahl, Creative Commons

A push for incarcerated domestic violence victims to get a second chance

They are pushing for a state law change to require courts to take into account expert testimony on human trafficking, sexual assault and intimate partner violence in cases like Taylor’s. 

On Dec. 2, 1996, Beatrice Taylor hobbled out of her apartment complex to a nearby payphone and dialed 911. 

She told a Gretna police dispatcher she needed officers to come out to her home for the second day in a row, according to court records. Her ex-boyfriend had become violent again, stomped on her foot and broken it. 

“I went straight to the phone across the street. I didn’t want to go back in my house,” Taylor told the police a few hours later.

Her ex, Stanley Zukowski, had threatened to kill her that morning, as he had done many times before, she said to officers that day, according to a transcript of her interrogation.

“I was terrified of the man,” she told them. 

In the 911 call, Taylor didn’t mention that  Zukowski might be injured, but when the officers arrived, they found him stabbed in the chest and slumped over a loveseat in Taylor’s apartment. Within a couple of hours, he was declared dead — and she was arrested. 

Experts describe Taylor’s case as a textbook example of a woman fighting back while in the throes of a violent relationship, but the events of that day touched off a 23 years of incarceration for Taylor.  

In 1997, a Jefferson Parish jury convicted Taylor of murdering Zukowski and sent her to the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in St. Gabriel. Taylor was sentenced to life without parole and expected to die in prison, until Gov. John Bel Edwards granted her a rare commutation in 2020. 

In his second term, Edwards and his parole board have awarded release to Taylor, now 76 years old, and a handful of other incarcerated women after reconsidering the role intimate partner violence played in their convictions. Advocates for domestic violence victims are grateful, but they say it’s not enough. 

They are pushing for a state law change to require courts to take into account expert testimony on human trafficking, sexual assault and intimate partner violence in cases like Taylor’s. 

The legislation would affect future cases and those of people already in prison. The Tulane University Women’s Prison Project estimates the proposed law could reduce sentences for  30 to 50 women behind bars in Louisiana.

“Those ladies left behind deserve the same freedom and justice that I was given,” Taylor told state lawmakers at a hearing last week. 

Fighting back

The general population’s understanding of intimate partner violence has improved over the past three decades since the landmark federal Violence Against Women Act passed.  But harmful stereotypes of abusers and survivors persist. Experts say the pervasive notion that domestic violence victims are passive influences the way they are treated in the criminal justice system. 

“Over 40% [of domestic violence victims] are fighting back at some time,” said Amanda Tonkovich, a social worker and state Crime Victims Reparations Board member. “For some reason when it comes to domestic violence, we don’t see that as appropriate.”

Police can mistake intimate partner violence for a “mutually violent” relationship, especially if they have been called to the same home to break up a couple’s fights over and over again. A victim of domestic violence who calls the police several times can be viewed as a nuisance rather than a person in need of protection, according to survivors’ advocates.

This dynamic was likely a factor for Taylor, who is identified by her former married name – Beatrice Jones – in court documents related to her case.

Gretna police had every reason to be familiar with her and Zukowski. During their eight-month relationship, Taylor said she called the police about once per month to “put him out” of her apartment, including the night before he died.

After that penultimate visit, an officer responding to the call described Taylor as acting “insane” and characterized Zukowski as “orderly” in a police report on the incident. She was yelling, while he calmly agreed to leave her apartment. 

Court documents also referred to the couple as “heavy drinkers” whose relationship became more volatile after they consumed alcohol. On the day of Zukowski’s death, he and Taylor ran into each other at the Naughty Knight nightclub in Gretna at 6:30 in the morning. Taylor said she went to the bar to buy cigarettes, and Zukowski was apparently on his way to work at the time, a friend said. But Zukowski had cocaine in his system and a blood alcohol content more than three times the legal limit when he died a couple of hours later, according to an autopsy report. 

Experts say it’s not unusual for victims of domestic violence to behave erratically or turn to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism, but this can affect law enforcement’s perception of them and later allow prosecutors to paint them in a negative light.

“When you are a victim of abuse, when you are in trauma, your brain is not good at laying down a linear story. It is focused on survival,” Tonkovich said. “The way their brain is working may be really jumbled.”

‘I don’t know what happened’

Jumbled is one way to describe Taylor’s answers to police questions on the day Zukowski was killed.

Initially, she told officers who arrived at her apartment that Zukowski might have gotten his chest wound by falling on the knife. Later, she would say she couldn’t recall how he had been injured.

“I don’t know what happened,” she told police during an interrogation the day Zukowski died. “The knife was in the bedroom. I left it there last night because I was afraid of him last night.”

“I’m going to be very honest with you. All I could see is red chest and then blood,” she added.

Six months later, Taylor repeated that she had no recollection of stabbing Zukowski during an interview with a psychiatrist, William Ritchie, who was evaluating her ahead of her trial. 

Taylor said she “just can’t remember the knife going into him,” according to Ritchie’s written evaluation of her state of mind at the time. 

In an interview with a reporter 25 years later, Taylor reiterated she didn’t remember stabbing Zukowski.

“I don’t remember much of any of it because I was in shock,” she said.

Taylor’s experience matches up with many victims of domestic violence. Many survivors can’t remember what happens during traumatic encounters, according to experts.

“The abusive party has this really nice linear story of what happened and why their partner attacked them,” Tonkovich said. “[The victim] can’t even talk. They can’t tell their story and they are in fear.” 

“Some women are unable to remember traumatic aspects of the battering or their actions during such episodes even when they want to, due, in part, to a dissociative amnesia resulting from exposure to violence,” wrote Mary Ann Dutton, a Georgetown University professor and trauma expert in a 1996 report “Validity of ‘Battered Women Syndrome’ in Criminal Cases Involving Battered Women.”

Taylor may not be able to remember the specifics of what happened the day Zukowski died, but she has always been very clear that she was subjected to months of abuse at his hands. 

In her police interrogation on the day of his death, Taylor told the police that Zukowski abused her for “many months,” and that Zukowski told her directly that morning that he was going to kill her. 

Her neighbors also testified in court that they had seen Taylor with bruises and a “fat lip” while she was dating Zukowski. One person also witnessed Zukowski hit Taylor outside her apartment. 

A complication in Taylor’s defense, however, was that she had been accused of stabbing a previous ex-boyfriend, Kent Berthelot, in 1994, two years before Zukowski’s death. 

Like Zukowski, Berthelot was stabbed in the chest once with a kitchen knife, but he survived with a punctured lung and chose not to press charges against Taylor, according to a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office report. Berthelot later said that he had been harassing Taylor at the time of the stabbing.

Taylor also characterized Berthelot as abusive toward her. She told police Berthelot had attacked her the day he got stabbed, though as with Zukowski’s stabbing two years later, Taylor couldn’t recall the specifics of the incident. 

“Kent was a stalker and broke into my house through windows,” Taylor told Gretna police the day of Zukowski’s death when they brought up Berthelot’s stabbing. 

“You know what I think I’m going to do? Get rid of kitchen knives.” she said during her interrogation. 

Lackluster legal representation

The jury heard about Taylor’s alleged attack on Berthelot at her trial, but some crucial information about Zukowski’s past was left out of the record. 

Prior to moving to Louisiana, Zukowski had been criminally charged 13 times and convicted of five crimes in Kentucky. One of his arrests was for an alleged assault on a spouse in 1993. He was also accused of general assault, drunk driving and kidnapping, according to court records from Taylor’s appeal of her conviction.

Other information that may have proven Taylor was suffering from “battered wife syndrome” — and shouldn’t be held entirely responsible for her actions — was also kept quiet at her trial. 

The court rejected Taylor’s request that she be able to enter a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. This resulted in evidence related to her history with domestic violence and state of mind at the time of Zukowski’s death being kept out of the court record. 

An assessment done of Taylor at the Jefferson Parish jail in July 1997 that concluded she suffered from “battered wife syndrome” was never brought before the jury.

Ritchie, the psychiatrist, determined Taylor’s personal history – her mother was in and out of mental hospitals when she was a child and her father abused alcohol – led Taylor to a string of abusive relationships with men, according to his report.

“Violence from men paradoxically reinforces the feeling in her that she is being loved,” he wrote.

Taylor had also been diagnosed as having “battered wife syndrome” a few years earlier, in 1992 when she was hospitalized for two weeks with suicidal thoughts, according to a report from the treatment center she attended. At the time, she was separating from her third husband and living in Missouri, though the jury never heard the details of this medical assessment either.

There were also issues with the jury itself that handed down Taylor’s conviction, said Stanislov Moroz, Taylor’s most recent attorney and a Tulane University law professor.

Stanislov Moroz
 Stanislov Moroz (Tulane University photo)

Men made up 11 of the 12 jurors at Taylor’s trial, and the prosecution used several of its pre-emptive jury strikes to remove women from the jury pool, Moroz said. The foreman of the jury also publicly stated that it was acceptable for a husband to hit his wife if she was “nagging” him.

People familiar with Taylor’s case believe weak legal representation is responsible for some of the mishaps she experienced at trial. Her lawyer was a public defender who had never worked a murder trial prior to Taylor’s case.

“An inexperienced young attorney sacrificed his client for headlines,” wrote Wayne Manusco, a subsequent attorney for Taylor, in an unsuccessful legal brief appealing her conviction. 

Taylor is not alone in having lackluster legal representation. Becki Kondkar, director of the Tulane Law School Domestic Violence Clinic, said many domestic violence survivors who find themselves behind bars for killing abusers have had similar problems with attorneys.

Becki Kondkar
 Becki Kondkar (Tulane University photo)

“I still haven’t interviewed one of these women whose attorney consulted with an expert in domestic violence,” Kondkar  said.

Kondkar helps run Tulane’s Women’s Prison Project, which provides legal representation to incarcerated domestic violence survivors who feel they were wrongfully convicted. The organization connected Taylor with Moroz, the attorney who eventually got her free with the governor’s help. 

The Louisiana Supreme Court made clear in 2018 that attorneys representing domestic violence survivors need to consult with a psychology expert to pursue a “battered wife syndrome” line of defense in a murder trial. That year, the court overturned the conviction of Catina Curley of New Orleans, who spent more than 10 years in prison for killing her husband after suffering years of abuse from him. 

The court found that Curley’s attorney John Fuller erred in not calling an expert on domestic violence to testify in Curley’s case. Fuller agreed with the court’s ruling and supported Curley’s release. 

Clemency is not enough, survivors say 

Advocates for domestic violence survivors consider the Curley ruling a major victory for their clients, but the decision does not apply retroactively. It did not help other people who were already in prison for similar offenses. 

Often, the only avenue for relief for women who have killed their abusers is through a gubernatorial pardon or clemency, which is highly subjective and largely dependent on the viewpoint of the governor.

Edwards has given dozens of incarcerated people an opportunity to get out of prison, but his predecessor, Gov. Bobby Jindal, released just one incarcerated person — an inmate who worked as Jindal’s personal butler — during his entire eight years in office.

“I was told by my counsel that you’re just going to have to file for clemency, but don’t do it while Bobby Jindal is in office,” Taylor said in an interview late last year after she had been released. “I waited eight years to file.”

Instead of relying on the governor to grant clemency, advocates for domestic violence survivors are hoping state lawmakers agree to pass a proposed law that would open up an avenue to have their sentences reconsidered.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, allows people in prison who are victims of intimate partner violence, human trafficking or sexual assault to have their cases reexamined if their attorneys failed to introduce expert testimony on those topics at their trials and those factors were relevant to their crimes.

The cases could also be revisited if evidence or arguments based on misconceptions of intimate partner violence, human trafficking and sexual assault were used at trial. 


Prosecutor opposition

Barrow’s bill is supposed to be debated on the Senate floor next week, but faces an uphill battle. The Louisiana District Attorneys Association opposes the legislation and lawmakers, in general, are wary of any proposal that could be interpreted as soft on crime — one of the top political issues in this fall’s elections.

Prosecutors have said Barrow’s legislation is too broad and could lead to serial killers and death row inmates getting their sentences reduced. 

Jacob Johnson, a Calcasieu Parish assistant district attorney, testified in a hearing last week that two-thirds of the state’s death row inmates suffered child abuse and would be able to use the legislation to get their sentences lessened or reversed.

Jacob Johnson
 Jacob Johnson (14th Judicial District photo)

Advocates for domestic violence have called the prosecutor’s characterization of the legislation absurd. They said it’s highly unlikely a judge or jury would entertain lessening a serial killer’s sentence based on child abuse that may have taken place years before their crimes.

“This has nothing to do with letting out serial killers or people on death row or whatever they are talking about.” Moroz said. “This law wouldn’t have anything to do with those cases.”

Prosecutors have also suggested a law change is unnecessary. They said if the Women’s Prison Project at Tulane approached district attorneys with compelling individual cases, district attorneys would consider revisiting some women’s sentences.

Moroz said his organization has approached several district attorneys offices about their clients’ cases, and the prosecutors have rarely been willing to look at old convictions.

“We do go to the DAs. What we hear is: ‘Those cases are old. We’re not going to look at them again,’” he said.

When it came to Taylor, Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick’s office wrote a letter opposing her release in 2020 on the grounds that her version of Zukowski’s death kept shifting. Likewise, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro fought against Curley’s release, even after the state Supreme Court overturned her conviction. 

“If [a domestic violence victim] is the one that dies, she becomes the victim,” Kondkar said. “But if she fights back and she is the one that survives, then they are going to prosecute her.”

Finally, a chance for incarcerated women

This most recent push for sentencing relief is different from most others in Louisiana because it would be expected to primarily affect incarcerated women. Most other efforts have predominantly affected incarcerated men.

“This is a group of survivors that has really not received a lot of attention or services,” said Becki Kondkar, who helps run the Women’s Prison Project at Tulane University’s law school.

“Historically, they haven’t been getting a lot of advocacy from the mainstream domestic violence community or the mainstream criminal justice reform community….which makes them all the more invisible,” she said. 

Women, on average, go to prison later than men do, so incarcerated women have been a lot less likely to benefit from the new access to parole that was given to people convicted of crimes as juveniles a few years ago, Kondkar said.

Incarcerated women are also far less likely to qualify for exoneration. They are not as likely as men to have been misidentified and cleared through something like DNA evidence, she said.

The jailhouse programs that incarcerated men – particularly those facing life or very long sentences – use to appeal their cases and seek post-conviction releases also aren’t particularly well-developed at Louisiana’s only women’s prison. 

“We didn’t file because we were never given the mindset that we were anything other than hidden away,” said Beatrice Taylor, a formerly incarcerated woman who received clemency from Gov. John Bel Edwards. 

“People on the outside never even gave a thought that there’s a women’s prison,” said Taylor, who was released from prison after 23 years in 2020.