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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Sin by Silence

Domestic abuse victim finds her voice after serving 26-year murder sentence

By John W. Kennedy
April 25, 2010

Brenda Clubine is a cheery, expressive and humorous middle-aged woman. Her upbeat outlook about her future defies the reality that she has spent more than half her life in prison.

She left her Nebraska home at age 12 to escape ongoing abuse. By 16, Brenda thought she had found the man of her dreams in Glendale, Calif. A year and a half later, she married Robert Clubine, who repeatedly complimented her looks and talked of his desire to provide for her. She believed Robert, 23 years her senior, would supply the loving home for which she yearned.

But two weeks after their wedding, the violence started. Brenda saw Robert slap his mother, and she tried to intervene. Brenda says Robert threw her across the room, slamming her into a door. The marital relationship deteriorated from there.

“That was the beginning of this hideous, vicious cycle that escalated,” Brenda says. Soon, Robert made Brenda quit her job, confiscated her money, forbade her retrieving the mail and forced her to relinquish friendships. He routinely called her a variety of expletives.

Eleven times Brenda left with her infant son, Joey, but she kept returning.

“I kept going back because at least I had a roof over my head,” Brenda says. “I didn’t want to live in a car with my baby.”

Typically, she says, Robert tracked her down in a day or two, then created a scene at her workplace that caused her to be fired. She lost six jobs in three months.

“I kept hearing his voice saying, ‘You’re never going to make it without me; no one will ever want you,’ ” Brenda says.

Once, two days after she fled, Brenda went to the apartment she had rented and found Robert sitting on her bed. Robert had gained the apartment manager’s confidence by telling him he was Brenda’s husband. Brenda says Robert punched her in the face and broke her nose.

“Did that make you feel like a man?” asked Brenda, who stood 5-feet, 1-inch tall and weighed 88 pounds.

During the next 5½ hours, the 6-foot-2 Robert inflicted a beating as never before.

Brenda suffered a skull fracture, shattered jaw, broken collarbone and cracked ribs. No skin remained on the left side of her face.

Yet Brenda survived. She pressed charges. A judge issued a battery arrest warrant against Robert. Brenda already had filed 42 documented police reports in six months, but that hadn’t stopped the cruelty.

“If somebody hunts you down like a dog no matter where you are and terrorizes you and nothing ever happens to him, you feel like there is no way out from the abuse,” Brenda says. “When you live in a constant state of fear, there is a horrible jolt in your stomach around the clock.”

Brenda filed for divorce. For three weeks, the threats, obscenities and beatings stopped. Robert phoned her and in a calm voice explained that he finally understood. He agreed to Brenda’s request to sign divorce papers in a public place.

After a pleasant dinner at a restaurant, Robert reached into his pocket and claimed that he forgot the papers. Against her better judgment, Brenda agreed to accompany him to a motel room where he now lived. She warned Robert that she would call police if he tried anything stupid.

Once Brenda entered the room, Robert immediately switched the deadbolt lock and chained the door.

A tense standoff began, with Robert ranting as he guzzled a bottle of wine.

Robert pulled out a copy of the arrest warrant that hadn’t been served — he had a friend on the police force — and said he had had enough of Brenda making him look like a fool.

Brenda bought time, trying to determine how to escape certain death. She told Robert she would drop the charges, that she wouldn’t file for divorce, that she would stay with him forever.

Robert told Brenda to hand over her wedding rings. He didn’t want authorities to be able to identify her body.

Brenda grabbed the wine bottle Robert had set on a table and hit him over the head. Although that didn’t knock him out, it dazed him enough that she could break away.

Two days later police came to arrest Brenda. She ended up on trial, where the county coroner testified that the bottle had fractured Robert’s skull, causing a brain hemorrhage that led to a 16-hour painful death.

A jury convicted Brenda of second-degree murder. She received a sentence of 16 years to life.

Battered women syndrome defense didn’t exist until 1992, when the group Brenda started — Convicted Women Against Abuse — convinced California lawmakers to allow expert witnesses to testify about it. The judge in Clubine’s trial allowed no history of the abuse to be admitted into evidence.

Telling Brenda’s story

Nine years ago, Olivia Klaus received a phone call from a friend crying out for help because of domestic violence.

“She had been abused for a long time,” says Klaus, 32. “It shattered me because I thought I knew her. How did I not know?”

Klaus went to Vanguard University sociology professor Elizabeth Dermody Leonard for help in finding resources. Leonard suggested that Klaus accompany her to a prison meeting of CWAA. In the 1990s, Leonard had interviewed Clubine and 41 other women for her doctoral dissertation, which became the largest and most representative study examining women in prison for the death of their intimate male abusers. Her work became the 2002 book Convicted Survivors: The Imprisonment of Battered Women Who Kill. There are an estimated 4,500 women incarcerated for killing abusive partners.

Leonard, 62, says Clubine’s case follows a familiar pattern in the early 1980s. The criminal justice system at the time, Leonard notes, investigated the homicide of an abuser as an isolated event, disregarding any violence that he may have inflicted upon a partner beforehand. Defendants such as Clubine couldn’t introduce any of the medical or police evidence of violence because the abuser wasn’t there to defend himself. Likewise, parties privy to the mayhem couldn’t offer such “hearsay” testimony. Meanwhile, prosecutors could portray the wife as someone who should have left rather than taking the law into her own hands.

“These women had no help provided from any system — family, the faith community, law enforcement,” Leonard says. “In a dire moment they would grab a bottle, a knife or a gun to survive a lethal assault.”

Leonard met Clubine in 1996.

“I was struck by her strength of character and her ability to relate her experience to the bigger picture of helping other women to see what they had gone through,” Leonard recalls. She says Clubine empowered other women to comprehend they still had value. The CWAA dynamic of group discussion helped the convicted women to heal as they resonated with similar accounts of abusive male figures.

After Klaus attended biweekly two-hour CWAA gatherings for two years, a member of the group asked her what she did for a living. Upon discovering Klaus’s work as a documentary filmmaker, the women asked her to tell their stories. Through the process, Klaus spent another six years bonding with members of CWAA, the only inmate-initiated battered women’s support group in the U.S. prison system.

Klaus and Clubine, now 48, went on a national speaking tour last fall and showed the film, Sin by Silence, which has been released on DVD. The film tells Clubine’s story and accounts of other women who remain behind bars.

“These women need compassion, support and hope,” says Klaus, whose film has won several film festival awards.

“Silence is a core issue,” Klaus says. “Just a simple announcement in the church bulletin [about shelters] could be the difference between life and death.”

Klaus and Clubine say Christians have come a long way in learning how to help domestic abuse victims. Clubine sought advice from a minister when the violence started, but he told her she had to stay with her husband, no matter what. Clubine also went to a marriage counselor — who, she felt, blamed her for making her husband angry.

Clubine lost her faith after being incarcerated and relinquishing rights to 2-year-old son Joey. Four years later she contemplated suicide when Joey’s adoptive parents told her that her son had been killed in a car wreck.

The road back

For Clubine, returning to God resulted from Bible study volunteers befriending her in prison.

“That they cared enough to be there was so important when I felt broken and alone,” says Clubine. “If I didn’t have those classes, I don’t know that I would have survived.”

Clubine, who has attended the Assemblies of God church in San Jacinto, Calif., since her release, says pastors today are more educated about domestic violence.

“While some churches don’t want to admit it is happening in their congregation, it’s wonderful when a pastor finds resources and provides a safe place,” she says.

Clubine walked out of California Institution for Women in Corona in October 2008, after being incarcerated for 26 years. Months earlier, her son — who had not died after all — found her. He is now 28 and has a wife and two sons.

Leonard points out that Clubine persisted for three years until prisons in California allowed CWAA to organize. She is certain Clubine will continue to be influential.

Despite living with relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis the past six years, Clubine continues to be an advocate for abused women who are serving lengthy sentences for murdering their husbands. CWAA now has more than 50 members.

“I do not want one other woman to live my nightmare,” Clubine says.

Editor’s note: For more information on Klaus’ documentary, see

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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