by Charles Davis (Change.org Editor)
Action Committee for Women in Prison
Gloria Killian spent the better part of two decades in a California prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Convicted of masterminding a 1981 murder and robbery, Killian received a sentence of 32 years to life behind bars based on the testimony of a man who admittedly lied on the stand in exchange for a shorter sentence.
Finally freed in 2002, Killian could have chosen to spend the rest of her life sipping mojitos on a tropical island somewhere. And who would have blamed her? Instead, she’s dedicated herself to drawing attention to the plight of women in prison and the daily injustices perpetrated by a system that has the ignoble distinction of holding more than 2.3 million people behind bars, making the U.S. home to the largest prison population in world history.
But then, “I’m compelled to do it,” Killian tells Change.org. “It’s not a choice. If I don’t use my experience to help the women that I left behind, then that means my life was destroyed for no reason, and I’m not about to let that happen.”
While she calls the story of her wrongful conviction “bizarre,” it's unfortunately all too typical of a system that values convictions more than justice. A law student at the time, Killian, now in her 60s, was charged with planning the robbery of an elderly couple in Sacramento that left the husband dead and the wife seriously injured with a gunshot wound to the head. While an initial investigation cleared her of involvement, she was convicted in 1986 based on the testimony of a casual acquaintance, Garry Masse.
What jurors didn’t hear was that the prosecutor, former Sacramento district attorney Christopher Cleland, had struck a deal with Masse, whereby his testimony against Killian would earn him a reduced sentence. In fact, as noted by the California State Bar, Cleland told jurors the the opposite, explicitly denying a deal had been made. “We have nothing to do with how much time Gary Masse serves,” he claimed.
Cleland, who remains unrepentant, also withheld from the defense a letter Masse wrote after the trial in which he declared that he “gave” Killian to the prosecution. “I even lied my ass off on the stand for you people.” The state bar ultimately found Cleland guilty of unethical conduct, which is a true rarity: as a recent report details, judges found prosecutors guilty of misconduct more than 700 times in the last dozen years, but just six were ever punished.
It’s that culture of impunity that Killian has dedicated herself to fighting. Since regaining her freedom, she’s gone on to testify before Congress and the California state legislature, and to speak at conferences across the world on the conditions faced by female inmates -- including one this weekend in Detroit billed as the first ever to focus exclusively on wrongly convicted with women. Along with Marry Ellen Digiacomo, who herself was wrongly convicted by the state of Florida, she also co-hosts a weekly radio show, “Women Behind Bars.”
“One of the things that really struck me when I went to prison is that this was a group of women that not only didn’t have a voice, they didn’t know it was okay to have a voice,” says Killian.
Another way in which Killian is helping those she left behind in prison to have a voice is through the Action Committee for Women in Prison, a group she found that connects women in prison with those of us on the outside through an ongoing pen pal program and a holiday gift-giving initiative. The group is also running a campaign to grant clemency to two Mississippi women, Jamie and Gladys Scott, who in 1993 were sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for an $11 robbery in which no one was injured or killed. The committee is also working to free Sara Kruzan, a human trafficking victim sentenced to life in prison at the age of just 16 for killing the man who had repeatedly raped her and pimped her out on the street.
“Basically we focus on humane and compassionate treatment for all incarcerated women, whether guilty or innocent, it doesn’t matter,” says Killian. “And we work for the release of all women who do not pose a threat to society,” as well as the ending of what she calls the “over reliance on incarceration in this country.”
"But none of this happens through a single organization or a single individual," she adds. "We need to spread the word and we need to organize better, because the criminal justice system has really run amuck."