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USC Law Students, Alum Fight for Battered Woman Convicted of Murder
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Friday, April 26, 2013
From the University of Southern California Law News Service
Contact: Gilien Silsby at (213) 740-9690 or (213) 500-8673
Law students with USC's Post-Conviction Justice Project are fighting for the release of Hilda Riggs, a 49-year-old victim of spousal battering who has spent two decades in prison for staying in the car while her abusive husband murdered a stranded motorist.
After spending decades in prison, Ms. Riggs may finally get a chance to introduce the same “battered woman syndrome” evidence in her defense that Riverside County prosecutors used to convict her husband.
In an unusual ruling last month, Judge Gary Tranbarger of the Riverside Superior Court ordered the District Attorney’s office to take another look at her case and respond to a petition requesting reconsideration of her conviction and sentence.
The District Attorney filed its response arguing that the statute passed by the California legislature - and amended as recently as January 1 of this year - should not apply to Ms. Riggs because she pleaded guilty.
Her lawyers filed a reply this week pointing out that the statute specifically addresses guilty pleas and Ms. Riggs’s case is precisely the type of injustice the legislature sought to redress. The case is scheduled for a hearing before Judge Tranbarger on Tuesday, April 30.
Ms. Riggs’ legal team argues that her conviction should be set aside and a new trial ordered so she has the opportunity to introduce expert testimony showing the psychological effect of the years of violent domestic abuse she endured at the hands of her husband, Billy Ray Riggs.
“At 18 and a single mother, Ms. Riggs married Billy Ray Riggs - twice her senior and the grandfather of her child - because she believed he would provide for her and her son. He quickly isolated her and subjected her to unspeakable physical, sexual, and emotional abuse," said Heidi Rummel, co-director of USC Gould School of Law’s Post-Conviction Justice Project, which is representing Ms. Riggs with attorneys at O'Melveny & Myers LLP. “The evidence is overwhelming – we know that her husband regularly beat her with a baseball bat, strangled her until she lost consciousness, and shoved a pistol in her mouth and pulled the trigger on an empty chamber.
The prosecution's own expert, Dr. Geraldine Stahly, and three Board of Prison Hearings investigators agree that Ms. Riggs was a victim of spousal battering and in fear for her life during most of her seven years with her husband and at the time of the crime.”
Ms. Riggs, who grew up in Los Angeles and attended Washington High School, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder to avoid a capital prosecution – not realizing that she had a potential defense based on battered woman syndrome. She did not take part in the crime committed by Billy Ray Riggs, who is now on death row.
Ms. Riggs, who has two children, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25-years to life in prison. Pursuant to her plea, Ms. Riggs agreed to testify for the prosecution in its capital case against Billy Ray Riggs. She served as the prosecution’s star witness at his trial, with prosecutors relying on Ms. Riggs’ account of her abuse, evidence that Billy Ray Riggs battered other women, and Stahly's expert testimony on battered woman syndrome to secure his death sentence.
The California Supreme Court, in affirming Billy Ray Riggs’ conviction, held that expert testimony about the brutality he inflicted on Hilda Riggs was “highly relevant” to the jury’s decision: It bolstered Ms. Riggs’s credibility as a witness against Billy Ray Riggs and explained why she failed to prevent or report his fatal attack on Jamie Bowie, whose car broke down in an orchard near Indio.
Despite the Riverside District Attorney’s office promise to recommend early parole in return for her testimony, and a positive record of rehabilitation in prison, the District Attorney's office opposed and the Board denied her release on parole at her initial parole hearing in 2010.
“We are hopeful that all parties will do the right thing and finally treat Hilda Riggs fairly – something she has been denied for more than two decades,” Rummel said.
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