Theresa Azhocar keeps a scrapbook of newspaper articles about people who've received lighter prison sentences than her daughter despite more egregious crimes. There's the guy in Vista who stabbed another man 21 times; the woman in Texas who almost got off on a technicality after being found guilty of hiring someone to kill her daughter's ex-boyfriend. Then there's the case that's oddly similar to Azhocar's daughter's case-a woman in Salinas who got three years in prison for hiring a hit man to kill her abusive husband. The couple was in the middle of a custody battle over their son.
Azhocar says her daughter tells her to stop focusing on these other cases. “There's just so many of them,” Azhocar said, sitting in her kitchen last Friday evening. Behind her, her 23-year-old granddaughter Antoinette washed dishes and handed out ice cream cones to her two children and their cousins. Antoinette's sister, 13-year-old Adrianna, who graduated from the eighth grade the day before, packed for a trip to Chicago to see relatives and asked a visitor what the city looked like. Both girls had a level of poise and confidence that belied what they've been through over the past 13 years.
In 1991 a jury found Azhocar's daughter-Adrianna and Antoinette's mother-Theresa Cruz, guilty of the attempted murder of her ex-husband. Two years prior, on the day before the couple was to go to court over custody of their 4-year-old son, Carlitos, three armed men approached Cruz's ex-husband in his front yard, asked him about the custody hearing and then shot him several times in the legs, according to court documents. Cruz was waiting in a nearby car.
Prior to the shooting, the couple's relationship was, at best, tumultuous. According to a 1995 memo from the Board of Prison Terms, Cruz's ex-husband accused her of keying his car and harassing him and his sister. Cruz, on the other hand, reported that she moved five times in three years to escape her ex-husband who, according to police reports, broke into her home and raped her at knife point. A letter to the parole board from state Assemblymember Sheila Kuehl, one of Cruz's supporters, details Cruz's daughter telling Kuehl about how her mother slept with the phone on her chest in case her ex-husband broke into their home.
At the time of the shooting Cruz was addicted to the anti-anxiety medication Xanax, prescribed to combat panic attacks. Azhocar said pharmacy records show Cruz had gotten prescriptions for more than 300 pills in one month. She also admitted to occasionally using meth.
On Feb. 13, 1991, San Diego Superior Court Judge William Howatt sentenced Cruz to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Her oldest daughter Andrea, then 11, remembers running home from school with a Valentine's Day card for her mom, who had, by then, turned herself over to police.
“Words couldn't express the way I felt when we got home to see my grandmother holding our baby sister, crying,” Andrea, now 24, said in a talk she gave last year on behalf of children with incarcerated parents.
Cruz's children were 5 months, 6, 10 and 11 years old when their mother went to prison. Weekly, Azhocar would take her grandchildren up to Chino to see Cruz, which meant a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way, followed by sometimes a five-hour wait. Until 1996, when legislation banned it, every two or three months, families were allowed 72-hour use of a small housing unit on prison grounds. “The kids would take their homework and she would help them,” Azhocar recalled. “If it was close to Halloween, we'd pretend to trick-or-treat. Close to Easter, they'd color eggs and she would hide them.
“I tried to keep that bond there,” said Azhocar.
Visits now come every two weeks, with the two oldest daughters, who each have two small kids, going on their own since inmates can receive no more than five visitors at a time.
Though Azhocar believes her grandkids would have preferred to grow up with their mom around, letters the kids have written to the parole board on their mother's behalf commend Azhocar's effort to raise them. At the time of Cruz's sentencing, in fact, Judge Howatt commended Azhocar for her unflinching support of her then-wayward daughter.
Whether abuse from her ex-husband was the motivation behind the shooting wasn't brought up at her trial-Howatt argued it wasn't relevant, saying, according to a court transcript, that evidence of abuse would be “unduly time consuming, confusing and misleading the jury as to the issues in this particular case....”
Cruz's case, though, was later the impetus for AB 231, a piece of 1995 legislation authored by Kuehl that requires the Board of Prison Terms, in making parole decisions, to take into account a prisoner's history of domestic violence. The bill argued that prior definitions of battered woman syndrome were too narrow, limited to women unable to leave an abusive situation rather than women who are stalked and threatened by a former partner. Though a 1992 psychological evaluation described Cruz as suffering from the effects of domestic abuse, a 2001 report by the Board of Prison Terms found Cruz didn't qualify for AB 231's provisions and that her parole would depend “solely on the merits of her case without any special allowance being made for [battered woman syndrome].”
In 1998, seven years into her sentence, Cruz was able to return home briefly when, on her 37th birthday, U.S. District Court Judge Napoleon Jones found merit in her claim that she'd received ineffective legal representation. Jones concluded that Cruz's lawyer failed to impeach a witness who'd lied in an earlier trial; that he failed to meet with Cruz during her trial-instead meeting with her father; and he didn't discuss with Cruz the potential for a plea bargain that could have meant release after 10 years, at the most.
Jones ordered Cruz released on bail pending a new trial. The state, however, challenged the ruling and had Cruz's bail revoked, and, ultimately, Jones' ruling overturned, but not before she was able to spend 18 days at home.
“When she came home, the kids couldn't get enough of her,” said Azhocar. “I had bought tickets for Disneyland and SeaWorld and we didn't get to do anything because they just wanted to be with her, all day, all night.”
Their mother's return to prison “devastated the kids,” said Azhocar. Cruz's eldest daughter dropped out of college, started using drugs and didn't speak to anyone for months, said Azhocar. “She put up a barrier and it took about three years for her to recover from it.”
Diana Block, who heads the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and has known Cruz since 1996, remembers her brief release. “It was so amazing to see them all together and what it meant for them to have their mother out and back with them,” she recalled. “It was so devastating to the family” when Cruz had to go back.
Last week, on the morning of June 17, Cruz was up for her seventh parole hearing in eight years-a hearing Azhocar knew would come before August. Block estimates that hundreds of letters had been sent to the parole board on Cruz's behalf, including one from her ex-husband, who, for the first time, supports her parole. (Advocates for Cruz asked CityBeat not to mention her ex-husband's name. His name is a matter of public record, so we grappled with this, but we ultimately decided the man's name wouldn't give readers any additional insight into the story.)
The hearing ultimately didn't happen. The California Institute for Women couldn't get a video-conferencing hook-up with the San Diego County District Attorney's office. A scheduler with the Board of Prison Terms said a new hearing won't happen anytime before August; her advocates say it gives them more time to send in letters of support.
Deputy District Attorney Richard Sachs said the DA will recommend against Cruz's parole-something they do except on rare occasions. When it comes to inmates with a life sentence, “we just want to see them under observation for a pretty long period of time before we lighten up and not worry about them anymore,” Sachs said. He described Cruz, though, as “a low degree of threat.”
Azhocar said that at the past six parole board hearings, her daughter had been given suggestions of how she might better her chance for release. Each time she's followed the board's recommendations only to be told to come back the following year. As Commissioner Manuel Ortega told Cruz after denying her parole, “You are doing everything that's right, everything that should be done.... You're getting very close and next year could be the day that I would say, yeah, I think Theresa Cruz is ready to go home.” That was September of 2000. Ortega is no longer on the parole board.
Last year, commissioners voted 2-1 against Cruz's release. “She was told to continue programming [vocational training and self-help groups],” said Block. “She has fulfilled all the requirements and requests from the parole board.... She's done everything that is really possible to have done from inside.” During her brief release in 1998, Cruz volunteered at a 12-step recovery program and has said that's the sort of employment she'd like to get when she gets out of prison.
When asked whether Cruz talks to her about how the 30-year-old who entered prison in 1991 is different from the 43-year-old hoping to earn her freedom, Block said that Cruz acknowledges her past problems, especially her drug addiction-she currently serves as a peer counselor for other drug-addicted prisoners. “I feel like she's someone who, at the time she went inside, had many problems in her life that seemed overwhelming, and now... she's gained the maturity and capacity to deal with them in a reflective way.
“One thing that hasn't changed,” said Block, “is her incredible dedication to her children. She wants to get out for them.”