Free Bernina Team and Love and Protect members, among other groups and individuals, gathered outside of Gov. J.B. Prizker's Chicago home Dec. 19 to call for the release and commutation of 52-year old Latinx lesbian prisoner Bernina Mata under a #FreeBernina Hannukah Light Action message. Mata has been imprisoned for 23 years on a now-classified first degree murder conviction.
"She was convicted of capital murder, based on a fiercely racist, homophobic prosecution that argued her lesbian identity caused her to kill and ignored her extensive history of sexual and physical abuse," said the Free Bernina Team in an email statement ahead of the event. "In 2003, her death sentence was commuted to a life sentence. If prosecutors had not sought the death penalty, she would likely be free today. In January 2022, Bernina and her team submitted a clemency petition to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, who reviews petitions and makes recommendations to the governor. At a hearing in June 2022, Bernina's team made the case for her freedom, accompanied by dozens of supporters. Now it is in Gov. Prizker's hands."
"We thank you for joining us to celebrate this second night of Hannukah," said People's Law Office Attorney Joey Mogul. "The Hannukah holiday is a celebration of a struggle for liberation where we light candles for eight nights. Tonight, we are going to use this holiday celebration to seek the liberation of Bernina Mata, other criminalized survivors and those who are unjustly convicted in Illinois prisons. This is why we are out here in front of Gov. Pritzker's house today. He has the power to liberate them all."
Mogul told the crowd that Mata is a "queer criminalized survivor" who experienced sexual abuse and mental trauma at the hands of her father and stepfather for years, so when she met the man at the bar and realized he was going to sexually assault her, she "acted in self-defense and stabbed him, and unfortunately and tragically he died." She added that the state decided to "ignore that extenuating circumstances" including Mata's previous sexual abuse trauma when they decided to prosecute her on a capital murder charge.
Mogul asserts that prosecutors zeroed in on Mata's race and sexual identity when they brought the case to trial in order to sway the jury into a guilty death-sentence verdict on those factors. She said the prosecutors argued that Mata's lesbian identity cased her to kill, repeatedly referencing her sexual identity during the trial and used the titles of three gay-themed books that were found in her house to further prejudice the jury against her.
"Imagine what books the state could use against you, taken from your shelves, at a trial," said Mogul.
Mogul added that Mata's only opportunity to get released is for Gov. Pritzker to grant the clemency petition.
Rabbi Brant Rosen of Tzedek Chicago said he is "inspired" by everyone calling for Mata's release. He spoke about the meaning of the Hannukah candles and how that applies to shining a light on Mata's story, the stories of the many people who are unjustly incarcerated and the overall mass incarceration crisis in America. Rosen also led the crowd in singing the blessings of the Hannukah holiday.
MAMAS (Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity) member April Ward spoke about her son Mickiael, who is currently incarcerated, and what she calls the horrible conditions he has faced, including guards goading himwhich has caused further punishment while he has been in prison. She added that the guards and wardens "are corrupt" and Gov. Pritzker needs to "clean house."
Lifted Voices organizer Kelly Hayes said that "being uncomfortable" in the cold "holding this space together…is sacred." She added that it is also important to help people when they are released from prison as they re-enter society and reminded attendees to donate to those funds. Hayes led people in a chant: "Come on J.B., set our loved ones free."
Tzedek Chicago's cantor, Adam Gottlieb, led protestors in song including "Hannukah, Oh Hannukah" with some of the lyrics changed to refer to their call for Mata's release and "I Will Light My Light" that he called on everyone to sing along with him.
Free Bernina Team member Debbie Sothorn also led protestors in singing "This Little Light of Mine," with some re-worded lyrics that included "Till Bernina's Free," among other things. The protest also included a lighted sign that said "Free Bernina," a menorah and jelly donuts.
See www.freebernina.com .