At age 18, Ny Nourn — a survivor of sexual and domestic violence — was blamed for a murder committed by her abuser and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Her sentence was reduced to 15 years to life with a chance of parole, when a second trial finally considered her domestic abuse. Now, after 16 years in prison, the Parole Board has found her suitable to leave. But will California Gov. Jerry Brown sign her out? If he does, will she be deported to Cambodia, a country she has never been to, instead of being allowed to stay in the US as the victim of abuse that she is?
Nourn was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after her Cambodian mother had fled the American carpet bombing of Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge genocide. Nourn’s father returned to Cambodia, but her mother made it to San Diego, where she remarried. But as a child, Nourn saw her stepfather verbally and physically abuse her mother. As a teen, she also became involved with an older man who abused and controlled her, and who shot another older man who was attracted to her. When she finally sought refuge from the abuse by going to the police, she was instead arrested and sentenced to life without parole. The abuse she suffered from her older lover, including being regularly beaten and sexually assaulted, was not considered at her first trial.
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It is by no means certain that Gov. Brown will sign Nourn out of prison. Several TV shows and articles have demonized her as a full accomplice in the murder, while social media commenters cite those shows when describing her as “EVIL,” “horrible” or “a disgusting piece of crap.” Others tell the truth: that she was a survivor of war and immigration, followed by rape, battering, and abuse as a teenager by an older male partner, Ronald Barker. At her second trial her lawyer said Barker “raped and beat Nourn, shot at her, threatened her with a knife and burned her with an iron, calling him a ‘man who would not let her out of his claws.'” When she was attracted to another older man, her boss at work, she agreed to set up a meeting between the two of them. “She never thought that Barker was going to kill David Stevens,” her lawyer said. “He [Barker] said, ‘If you ever tell anybody about this, I’m going to kill you and I’m going to kill your family.'” She kept silent for three years, but eventually more death threats led her to go to the police to explain the unsolved murder.
Which Ny will Gov. Brown see: the “Asian siren” portrayed on TV and castigated on social media, or the real woman who is working hard to heal from her traumas?
Activists are circulating a petition, exhorting him to believe the experiences of survivors and grant Ny parole. If it gains enough signatures, this demonstration of his constituents’ support for Nourn could outweigh the demonizing narratives that are circulating in the mainstream media.
Only three states — California, Maryland and Oklahoma — allow their governor to veto a parole board decision to let a person serving a life sentence out. Previous California governors notoriously vetoed many such decisions, but Brown approved 82 percent of them in his first years in office. So whom did he deny? He has vetoed parole for many people involved in a sex crime or a case in which a law officer was killed, and he also often says “no” when there is a group of organized angry victim’s rights supporters.
Now is the time for everyone who stands in solidarity with survivors of domestic violence to let Jerry Brown know there is a constituency behind Nourn and all incarcerated victims of domestic violence.
However, even if Brown approves Nourn’s parole, the struggle won’t end there. If he lets her out, ICE will be waiting to send her back to a country she has never known. She will still have a felony conviction on her record, even though she never would have been convicted if her court had understood domestic violence. What she truly needs is a pardon. The US is all she has known since an early age, like so many Dreamers. This is her country now.
If Nourn is freed, all of us who mobilized for her parole will be standing ready for the next phase of this struggle: the fight against her deportation.