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Life, Interrupted: Debi Zuver is now serving a 21-year sentence for manslaughter.

One Battered Woman

The Case of Debi Zuver

By Stephanie Hiller

On Nov. 23, 2000, Debi Zuver shot and killed her lover of two years, Kim Garloff. Faced with a possible 50 years in prison, Zuver pleaded no contest to the charge of voluntary manslaughter "without malice and upon a sudden quarrel and heat of passion."

Zuver's defense--that she was a battered woman in fear of her life--did not please the court. At the sentencing hearing on Jan. 7, 2000, Judge Elliot Daum of Sonoma County Superior Court pronounced the maximum sentence on two charges, manslaughter and possession of a weapon: 21 years in state prison.

Daum stated that Zuver was a danger to society and that her abuse was no excuse for leniency. She was sent to the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.

The sentence was appealed. Zuver claimed that she had ineffective counsel in the sentencing; that evidence about battered women's syndrome was ignored; that the sentence was inappropriately aggravated; and that the sentencing hearing was fundamentally unfair. On March 17 of this year, Zuver's appeal was summarily rejected by the First Appellate District of the California State of Appeal.

Public Defender Steven Fabian, Zuver's representation in the original hearing, says, "Danger to society? She's a very troubled woman trying to get her life together."

This is her story.

According to materials submitted for her hearing, Zuver's stepfather began to molest Zuver when she was 14. He put his hand down the front of her pajamas while masturbating himself. She learned to defend herself by pushing him away, learning early in life to counter abuse with aggression. Zuver told her mother of the repeated abuse, but her mother didn't believe her.

Zuver's first husband abused her. She had a child she was unable to raise herself and at least one other abusive boyfriend. When she was not involved with a batterer, she got control of her own addictions and led a functioning life, often maintaining more than one job, her own home, and a neat appearance. Then in 1998 she met Kim Garloff. A friend testifying at the hearing said she saw Zuver go downhill after that.

Garloff was a convicted felon, a drug dealer, and a methamphetamine addict with a record of battery and assault. He insisted that Zuver stop working, kept close track of her whereabouts, and got her back into using drugs. While he was in jail for assault, Zuver broke up with him, but he managed to sweet-talk her into putting up his $150,000 bail and taking him back when he got out.

We were not able to interview Zuver for this article, but in an interview conducted with Noelle Hanrahan on KPFA right after her sentencing, Zuver said that when Kim got out of jail he was "like paranoid. He was assaultive, he was combative. When I would wake up, he would be sitting with his face over me and there'd be all sorts of papers torn up all around, and he was convinced that I was having an affair."

But that didn't stop him from seeing other women.

At 5'10" and 230 pounds, Garloff was a big man. "He broke my ribs on two occasions," said Zuver, crying as she was interviewed on KPFA. "He threw a jar of apple juice at me at full velocity, hit me so hard it knocked me out. I had multiple rib fractures on my left side. He fractured my sternum. He would grab me by the top of my head. I was thrown around, picked up, punched. I was living in fear. I lost everything; I lost a really good sense of myself."

During their relationship, Zuver had gotten heavily into drugs and alcohol. But in the months before the shooting, she struggled to free herself from the trap she was in. She began a 12-step program and decided to check in to the Orenda Center's drug rehabilitation program. During that time, she made a pivotal decision: She decided she wouldn't lie for him in court.

Garloff was to go on trial for manufacturing drugs at the residence he shared with another girlfriend, Sharon Pankewicz. He was facing 19 years in prison. Zuver had consented to testify that she had been living with him and did not know anything about the lab. But now she changed her mind.

"I wasn't going sit up on the stand and lie for him," Zuver told Hanrahan. "I knew that once I told the attorney, that was it." Terrified that Kim or some of his friends would try to kill her, she purchased some bullets ("for [her] husband or boyfriend," she said, an ambiguous comment that was used against her in the trial) and began carrying a gun that Kim had left in her apartment.

Four days later, when Zuver was packing up her things to go with her sponsor to the Orenda Center, Garloff, his blood loaded with crank, broke into her home and assaulted her. "He grabbed hold of me by the neck and threw me down on the bed," Zuver said in the KPFA interview. "He was on top of me with his knee in my stomach, telling me I had to testify, I had to get with the program, or he would kill me. I told him I wasn't going to.

"He threw me across the room. I landed on the dining room table." Then Garloff sat down on the futon and told Zuver "to get me my gun."

"I reached over; I had the gun under my pillow," Zuver said. "I was actually going to give him the gun. Instead I shot him."

Garloff was fatally wounded, but not yet dead. Zuver, who was living in a converted garage apartment at the home of her friend, Sherry Novello, came to Novello's room. Novello wanted to call the police, but Zuver was terrified and refused. She threatened to kill herself. She was hysterical.

Novello left to call for help. And then Zuver made a fatal mistake. She shot Garloff again.

When the police arrived, Zuver was hiding in a closet.

During an unusually long sentencing hearing of three days, Zuver's public defender Steven Fabian argued that Zuver was a battered woman acting in defense of her own life. He presented other victims of Garloff's battering, including an ex-wife and a former girlfriend who had suffered his abuse. A friend of Zuver's testified that she had seen her bruises. Unfortunately, as is characteristic in abuse cases, the abused keep their domestic conflicts private and do not report them to police.

Fabian called in an expert witness, Dr. Daniel Sonkin, who testified that Zuver's behavior fit the description of battered woman's syndrome and that she was in fear of her life. Deputy District Attorney Chuck Arden called in Garloff's mother and daughters who said what a decent guy he was and alleged that Zuver was verbally abusive, hysterical, and jealous. Later, Arden quoted statements allegedly made by Zuver and noted in more than one police report that she had had 20 abortions and had slept with 337 men.

The image that emerged depicted Zuver as a hostile, possessive, jealous slut who had been verbally abusive to the victim and who was quite capable of premeditated murder. Arden then challenged Sonkin's testimony and read from a book by Alan Dershowitz in which the author argued that battered woman's syndrome was frequently used as an "abuse excuse."

Basing his judgment on the fact that Zuver had purchased bullets for the gun three days prior to the shooting; that the victim was passively lying on the futon at the time of the shooting; and that Zuver had shot the victim a second time, allegedly saying, "Die you fat, toothless bastard!" (though Zuver denies saying this and, according to Purple Berets founder Tanya Brannan, witness Novello was unreliable), Judge Elliot Daum decided that Zuver was "a threat to society" and gave her the maximum sentence for aggravated assault and aggravated use of a weapon. In his closing statement, Daum averred that using the "abuse excuse" in such cases would return civilization "to the law of the jungle."

Was Zuver lying about Garloff's abuse? Olivia Wang is an attorney who works for Free Battered Women. She had met Zuver once and attended the appeal. Asked if it was possible that Zuver was lying about the battering, Wang says, "It's very difficult to fake it."

But Wang points out that battered woman's syndrome is "very problematic" in that it characterizes the behavior of battered women as irrational. "People say there's no excuse for shooting someone when sleeping, that that's an irrational act," says Wang. "But for someone who has lived with years of torture, that may seem like a rational move you had to take."

Wang says, when assessing cases such as Zuver's, you have to ask what the choices are for abuse victims. Batterers are typically stronger than the women they abuse, with a history of violent behavior. It's not unusual for victims to use a weapon against a batterer when he is vulnerable. "Domestic-violence victims may truly believe that if they don't act, they will be killed."

Zuver said, "If I hadn't shot him, I wouldn't be here today."

At the end of her interview for KPFA, Zuver made a plea to battered women. "In the United States, a woman is battered every 12 seconds. Get help. Don't end up like me." The Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women could not provide local statistics, but according to the YWCA, which runs a refuge for battered women temporary restraining services in 2001-2002 were provided to no less than 5,600 separate individuals, and this year the number appears to be rising.

National statistics vary depending on the study, but according to Elizabeth Leonard, professor of sociology at Vanguard University in Los Angeles, at least 40 percent, and as much as 93 percent, of women who kill have been abused by their victims. Currently there are 2,000 battered women in America who are serving prison time for defending their lives against their batterers.

Wang says the recidivism rate for these women is extremely low. Many go on to put their lives back together, starting businesses or working for agencies that help women like themselves.

Battered women are often women who were abused as children. Unfortunately, they are frequently drawn into relationships where they are treated badly. Abusive relationships exhibit complex cycles of jealousy, possessiveness, fear and aggression, and assault and contrition, where the violence seems to solidify the bond of victim to abuser.

It seems especially puzzling that women don't get out of these relationships as soon as they can. But Wang confirms that most of the battered women killed by their abusers are killed after they have left the relationship.

Public defender Steven Fabian has no doubt that Zuver was a battered woman. He told me he spent hundreds of hours on her case and submitted hundreds of pages of documents attesting to Garloff's unsavory character, his criminal behavior, and in particular his abuse of Zuver. He invited me to his Santa Rosa office to have a look.

Fabian is a tall, bearded fellow in his 40s. Before escorting me into his office, he collected two boxes of documents from a closet. We sat down in his small office cluttered with papers--he was in the middle of preparing two motions for the following day--and he turned his troubled eyes in my direction.

"I lost a lot of sleep over this case," he says. A public defender for 24 years, he does this job "to help people." In thousands of cases, Zuver's is one of two or three that continue to haunt him.

Had Zuver planned to murder Garloff? I ask. "Absolutely not," Fabian says. "There's nothing that disproves her version of the events that occurred. Premeditated, absolutely not. I think the steps she took were indicative of her fear of Garloff and what he was going to do to her."

But the bottom line was that second shot. Because of it, Fabian believes Zuver could have gotten 50 years if she went to trial. "It could have gone a lot of different ways, depending on the reactions of the jury." He did not expect Zuver to get off entirely after the plea bargain but was shocked at the maximum sentence on both counts.

Asked why Zuver had not met with the probation officer as is usual in this type of case, Fabian says that decision had been made with Zuver and was confidential. He may have believed that Zuver would not have fared well in such an interview, considering her mental state.

He gave me a stack of reports to look through--depositions of other witnesses not presented in court, charges against Garloff confirming his criminal history, biographical statements by Zuver, all of them submitted to the court. "Judge Daum did not view the facts the way they were given to him--but they were given to him."

Daum is prohibited from commenting about the case until 60 days after the appeal.

In a phone interview, Tanya Brannan tells me she founded the Purple Berets in 1991, right after the Clarence Thomas hearings, to "stand with women to fight back against the whole sexist system." The Purple Berets got drawn into a local rape case, and once they saw "how much power that system wields over women's lives and how sexist it is," they began to defend the rights of abused women. When Brannan heard about Zuver's case, she went to see her at the county jail, documented her bruises, and decided to help her.

Does Brannan have any doubt in her mind that Zuver was a battered woman? "No." Any doubt that Kim Garloff was an abuser? "No. I've known [Zuver] for three years in many different settings, and she has always told me the same story." Brannan adds that her organization does not take ambiguous cases, because "we're doing political activism in a mine field and we have to choose our cases carefully." She cites other instances of Garloff's violent behavior. "He was just a brutal son of a bitch."

Then why did Daum issue so harsh a sentence? "Good question," Brannan says. "The first thing is that he wasn't looking at the full picture, and that was part of the basis for appeal--[Fabian] telling her not to talk to the probation officer and [not to] testify. She is a smart, articulate woman, and she should have testified.

"We were blown away by the sentence. We expected seven to 10 years. Even that I think is unfair. But 21 years was really like a kick in the chest."

The two charges constituted "a double whammy," Brannan says. On the one hand she was convicted of aggravated assault with a weapon, and on the other, the use of that weapon.

"I worked for Elliot Daum to be elected," she continues. "He had been the only public defender that ever took a stand. He took a stand on three strikes, and now he's taking chances on [Governor Gray] Davis' denial of parole in two cases, both men who murdered their wives or ex-wives. There's a big blind spot for Elliot Daum, and it's women."

Brannan is not surprised the appeal failed. "Ninety-eight percent of appeals fail. They're heard by a panel of Superior Court judges who don't want to undermine the other judges. And they don't look at anything that isn't in the trial record." Much of the information on Garloff and on Zuver's abuse was submitted in supplemental reports.

Herb Blanck, a retired appellate attorney, was Zuver's lawyer for the appeal. He wasn't surprised that the appeal failed, but, he says, he was "surprised by the speed. They had made up their minds in advance." Blanck had hoped the court would see how "bad the sentencing hearing was," specifically the lack of interview with a probation officer. He says Fabian also failed to prepare his expert witness, Dr. Sonkin, who was, in any case, an expert frequently used by the district attorney. "Major mistake. There's an inherent conflict of interest."

As for battered woman's syndrome, Blanck says Daum didn't understand it.

Some 25 women, many of them members of the Purple Berets, attended the appeal hearing. Many thought Zuver should have been released on probation. If so, would she have gotten into another deadly relationship? Wang believes victims of battering need a complex of services that are simply not available. The government should provide these services, she says. Jail may keep the batterers away from their victims, but it offers little in the way of rehabilitation.

Because children in abusive relationships are frequently abused as well, violence against their mothers results in a well-documented "cycle of abuse" that leads to more delinquency, drug addiction, and violence. If civilized society is what's at stake, as Judge Daum stated, then protecting women from male violence seems more to the point. As Tanya Brannan put it, "Women live under the law of the jungle every day. Judge Daum doesn't."

On Friday, April 4, Debi Zuver filed an appeal for rehearing by the Appellate Court as a first step in keeping her case open for other options.

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From the April 17-23, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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