The law presumes that women who kill violently abusive partners had the option to walk away. In reality, it's not so easy
A few years ago, a young woman named Natasha shot and killed her boyfriend in the apartment they were sharing. He had trapped her in the bedroom and was about to launch into another of what had become weekly "beatdowns", where he would hit her with a closed fist. Prior to the killing, the beatings had become more severe and more frequent, as were the threats that he was going to kill her. None of this seemed to count for much at her trial.
Natasha was charged with second-degree murder and criminal possession of a firearm (which was her boyfriend's) and was ultimately convicted of manslaughter. She was given a 15-year sentence and is now in prison, along with countless other battered women (pdf) who found little protection from the criminal justice system when they needed it, but who felt the full force of its prosecutorial might when they took steps to protect themselves.
Every state in America has a self-defense law that allows an individual to use deadly force in situations where a threat to his or her well-being is imminent. If an intruder enters your home with a loaded gun, thereby posing an imminent threat to your life, you're allowed to use deadly force to protect yourself. When the intruder with the loaded gun (metaphorical or otherwise) is your intimate partner and living in the house with you, the imminence law frequently fails to apply ? mostly because of the perception that the abused woman could have, or at least should have, found a more palatable way of ending the violent relationship.
I asked Natasha, in a letter, if there were other options available to her to escape the abuse, short of gunning the guy down. She replied as follows:
"You asked if there was any other way to get away from [the boyfriend].?At the time I pulled the trigger, I didn't think so. He'd cornered me in a small bedroom with no way out except maybe jumping out a glass window or simply undergoing yet another beatdown. He was fond of beating me, then forcing me to perform oral sex on him right away. If my lips were bloody, he'd force himself into my rectum. All of this, and then some, was entered into the record at the psych evaluation."
Like many abused women, Natasha had made several attempts to escape the relationship, only to be brought back [by the boyfriend] to face harsher beatings and more death threats. Yet this failure to escape, or failure to meet the "duty to retreat", is one of the main reasons that the self-defense argument often does not work for women who kill because they think they are in danger of being killed. The presumption is that a woman who is in a violent relationship, and whose life has been threatened, should simply walk away. In theory, it sounds like a piece of cake: just leave when he's asleep, or at work, or whatever.
Reality is a lot more complicated.
Advocates for battered women cite four main reasons why they tend to not be able to get away: the police and courts offer little substantial protection (restraining orders and such are about as effective as the paper they're written on, when it comes to deterring a determined batterer); shelters are often full; leaving is financially impossible, especially when there are children involved; and, finally, the women know, better than anyone, that he will track her down and the violence will be even worse. In fact, women who leave their batterers are statistically more likely to be killed than women who stay.
Michael Dowd, a New York attorney dubbed the "black widow lawyer" for having successfully defended a number of women who killed their abusive partners, likens a battered woman's predicament to a hostage situation. Dowd has "represented women whose lives in homes with abusive men were as dangerous and hopeless as living in cell in Beirut being guarded by terrorists." But, he writes, "if a hostage was told he would be killed the next day, we would applaud the strangling of a sleeping guard in an effort to escape." A woman who kills her husband in the wake of a similar threat is far more likely to greeted with the clanking of the jailers' keys than with a round of applause.
Dowd most recently defended a woman called Barbara Sheehan, who shot her abusive husband with his gun. Sheehan's case perfectly illustrates the hostage situation. Her husband, who had subjected her to savage beatings during their 20-year marriage, was a police officer, so the option of turning to the police for help was not available to her. Leaving was not an option either, because he frequently threatened to kill her and their two children, should she do so. In case she thought this was an idle threat, he kept two guns within reach at all times in their home, even while he watching television.
Sheehan was acquitted of the murder but sentenced to five years in prison for unlawful possession of a firearm (the same firearm her husband had so often threatened to kill her and their children with). In a more just society, she would have been compensated for the 20 years of abuse she suffered at the hands of a husband whose job it was to uphold and enforce the law. But, like Natasha's case, and so many other women's, Sheehan's story illustrates that even now, in 2012, our criminal justice system is much better-equipped, and much more likely, to prosecute and punish abused women than it is to protect them.
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