| Teresa's Legacy:
The Women's Rights Case That Changed the World
by Tanya Brannan, Purple Berets
fell over the courtroom as Sara Hernandez began her second day
of testimony in the María Teresa Macias federal civil rights
trial in San Francisco. All eyes were on Sara as she told the
story of her daughter's valiant but ill-fated attempts to escape
her husband's violence.
But that escape
was not to be. On April 15, 1996, Avelino Macias brutally murdered
Teresa, shot Sara, and then lay across Teresa's dying body and
blew his brains out.
awful day, Teresa Macias had contacted the Sonoma County Sheriff's
Department more than twenty times to report Avelino's obsessive
stalking; threats to kill Teresa, her children, her mother and
other family members in Mexico; and a number of other felony crimes.
She'd had friends, family and employers report incidents they
themselves had witnessed, got multiple restraining orders, and
reported every violation of those orders to the sheriff. In short,
Teresa Macias did everything right.
But the Sheriff's
Department did everything wrong. They never cited or arrested
Avelino, despite their own policy and California law requiring
that they do so. They called Teresa crazy, told her to quit coming
in and to just write down her complaints instead, and then never
bothered to translate the diary pages she brought them detailing
more than 30 separate crimes. They took her children into Child
Protective Services custody because Teresa could not protect them
from Avelino's violence and sexual abuse. And through it all,
they only even bothered to write two police reports.
On the witness
stand, Sara Hernandez described Teresa's constant fear of Avelino,
a man who had beaten her, raped her repeatedly, and shot a man
in the head in their home in front of Teresa and her three young
children. He had molested and beaten with broomsticks those same
children, and put cigarettes out on Teresa's arms. And then Sara
described the day he murdered her.
As Sara and
Teresa arrived for their housecleaning job on that drizzly April
morning, Avelino lay in wait. After he forced his way into the
car; Teresa escaped and ran into the house. When he forced his
way into the house, Teresa fled to the sidewalk. As Sara picked
up the phone to dial 911 she heard Teresa plead, "For God's
sake, for God's sake, don't do it, don't do it." And then
she heard the shot.
to the front door and saw Avelino running up the sidewalk shooting
wildly. "I slammed the door closed and leaned against it,"
Sara testified. "Then Avelino shot me [in both legs]. I fell
to my knees. As he turned to leave, Avelino said, laughing, My
stupid mother-in law, I have killed your daughter.'"
this chilling testimony, the courtroom sat in stunned silence
as attorneys for the Sonoma County Sheriff announced they had
reached a settlement agreement with the Macias family. And with
that historic $1 million settlement the first-ever paid
by a law enforcement agency for their failure to protect a domestic
violence victim leading to her homicide one of the most
important women's rights cases in U.S. history came to a dramatic
But the Macias case is not only a legal victory, it is a victory
for grassroots activism. Marie De Santis (Women's Justice Center)
and I (Purple Berets) investigated Teresa's contact with law enforcement
and exposed the sheriff's deadly disdain that contributed to her
murder. You literally would never have heard of Teresa Macias
without that investigation being released to the Bay Area press,
thus shaming the Press Democrat into covering the case.
the state of the law, met with constitutional attorneys, found
the attorneys who took the case and formulated the legal strategy,
all the while helping the family deal with a host of other needs
in the wake of Teresa's murder. The two groups organized six years
of demonstrations, events and media revelations, did regular mailings
on the case, and in every way made the murder of Teresa Macias
a touchstone domestic violence case nationally and internationally.
And in the
end, working together with her courageous family, we fulfilled
Teresa Macias' last wish. In the days before her murder, Teresa
told her mother Sara, "If I die, I want you to tell the world
what happened to me. I don't want other women to suffer as I have
suffered; I want them to be listened to."