THE BLOG
04/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Before Rihanna, There Was Connie Keel

About a month ago, I arrived at work to find the face of a bruised and battered pop princess splayed across the front cover of The New York Post. Like many, I cringed at the disturbing photograph and gory details of Chris Brown's assault on the eve of the Grammy's. And later, I cringed again upon learning that despite his threatening her life and trying to force her out of a moving vehicle, she had taken the louse back.

As a young woman just a few years older than Rihanna, I was shaken. It struck me that even a beautiful, successful celebrity -- a girl who had every reason to respect herself -- was unable to muster the strength to end an abusive relationship. And yet, I knew her story was not unique. Fear, denial, and a futile desire to "make it work" all too often cloud victims' judgment -- and extricating themselves from their situations becomes a challenge. Recently, I learned of someone close to my own circle whose alcoholic boyfriend routinely kicked her out of the house in the middle of the night. It was only when her therapist suggested a restraining order that she realized the full magnitude of his actions.

When a woman begins to feel that abuse is forgivable, and indeed, acceptable, the psychological effect is detrimental. For me, the story of 50-year-old Connie Keel of California drives this point home.

In 1980, Connie, then 21, was married to Ricky Keel, a drug addict who regularly beat her. Molested and physically attacked by relatives, friends, and neighbors throughout her childhood, she simply believed that abuse "happened to everyone." One evening, her husband and his violent cousin pulled into the parking lot of a local liquor store and decided to rob and shoot the clerk. Pointing a loaded gun at Connie, Ricky warned her to stay in the car. Terrified, she did as she was told. After committing the crime, Ricky and his cousin returned and drove Connie back to their isolated Northern California home, where they kept constant watch over her for two days.

When all three were arrested, Connie believed her innocence was clear. Tragically, she was wrong. Convicted of first-degree murder, she has spent nearly three decades -- more than half of her life -- behind bars. Finally, thanks in large part to Adam Reich, a University of Southern California law student who took up her case, a parole board recommended her release on October 29, 2008. Her fate now lies in the hands of Governor Schwarzenegger, who has until March 27th to decide whether or not to uphold the board's decision.

Connie Keel should serve as a cautionary tale to Rihanna and to all women who convince themselves that they can't leave -- or worse, that abuse is a normal part of life. But her story is also one of inspiration and hope. Rather than simply giving up on life, Connie has spent her incarceration becoming a productive member of society. Not only did she earn her GED and several vocational skills, but she also became actively involved in numerous community service groups, including Convicted Women Against Abuse and Victim Offender Mediation. Despite the length of her sentence, she has maintained close bonds with her daughter and son, his children, and devoted friends. What's more, according to psychological evaluations, Connie has expressed significant remorse for her failure to prevent the murder -- and now understands how the life-long abuse she suffered paralyzed her.

Governor Schwarzenegger should grant this courageous woman her long overdue freedom. However, given that he has not affirmed many parole suitability determinations, Connie's advocates are justifiably concerned. The public has less than two week to sway his opinion. Please join me in voicing your support by logging onto www.freeconnie.com. Through the Web site, you can send emails to the Governor and share Connie's story with others.

We need to give Connie Keel the second chance she deserves -- and to empower the Rihannas of the world to follow her path to strength.

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