How Do We Contend With Women Who Misuse The “Justifiable Homicide” Defense?
3:30 pm, February 6th | by Colette McIntyre
On Tuesday Jodi Arias admitted that she had lied to investigators. The 32-year-old Arizona woman is currently on trial for the 2008 murder of her boyfriend Travis Alexander; she is accused of stabbing Alexander twenty-seven times, slitting his throat, and shooting him in the forehead, leaving his body in his Phoenix home to be found five days later. Initially, Arias denied any knowledge of the killing. Then, her story changed and she blamed the murder on “masked intruders.” Now Arias is claiming that she murdered Alexander in self-defense.
“Did you kill Travis Alexander on June 4, 2008?” defense attorney Kirk Nurmi asked. “Yes I did,” Arias replied. “He attacked me and I defended myself.” Arias alleged that she earlier claimed she wouldn’t be convicted because she had planned on committing suicide before a trial could begin: “At the time, I had plans to commit suicide. So I was extremely confident that no jury would convict me because I didn’t exact any of you to be here,” Arias told jurors. “I planned to be dead.”
Taking into account Arias’ previous false statements, her lack of self-defense wounds, and the fact that she attempted to clean Alexander’s Phoenix home after the attack, it’s hard not to interpret Arias’ self defense claim as a ploy to gain sympathy from jurors. By alleging domestic abuse, Arias can portray herself as the “real” victim; under the guise of self-defense, her attack may be interpreted as justifiable. If Arias is in fact lying about the abuse, she is making a mockery of real domestic abuse victims.
Using a self-defense claim as a courtroom gambit completely undermines public confidence in true allegations of domestic abuse. Every defense that falsely invokes justifiable homicide worsens the plight of women who are charged with killing their abusers, and makes it harder to prove when a crime has really taken place.
The current legal understanding of domestic violence has only been around for about forty years. As Holly Maguigan, a law professor at New York University Law School, states, prior to the mainstreaming of feminist theory in the 1970s, “battered women who killed their abusers in self-defense had been encouraged to plead insanity or were persuaded to plead guilty to lesser charges rather than risk going to trial.” Prolonged domestic violence simply wasn’t seen as a reasonable justification of deadly force. In the mid-1970s, Battered Woman Syndrome was coined to help combat these biases in the law. BWS is a psychological term used to describe women who are or were trapped in abusive relationships typified by the “cycle of violence“; it’s effects are comparable to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Thanks to the growing research on BWS and the tireless work of domestic abuse organizations, courts are now more likely to recognize evidence of domestic violence in support of self-defense claims.
However, the success of the battered-woman defense has been mixed; while knowledge of domestic violence and its effects have increased, many judges and juries still struggle to understand why victims stay in abusive relationships and just how a wife — a symbol of the safe domestic sphere — could kill her husband. As Maguigan reports, women who kill their abusive husbands are convicted at the same rate as other people on trial for murder. Despite all the advancements made and the legal precedents in place, according to the National Collation Against Domestic Violence the average sentence for women who kill their partners is 15 years — for men, it is just 2 to 6.
A Maryland judge sentenced Kenneth Peacock to eighteen months for killing his unfaithful wife. The next day, a different judge in the same Maryland county sentenced Patricia Ann Hawkins, a victim of domestic abuse, to three years for killing her husband. The Michigan Office of the State Appellate Defender’s survey of legal cases found that state prosecutors consistently overcharge female defendants in victim precipitated homicides. Additionally, the survey found that in cases where the female defendants had killed their battering spouses, judges usually refused to “follow appropriate jury instructions” and “deviate from sentencing guidelines.” Approximately 90 percent of women incarcerated for killing men were abused by the men whom they killed.
False self-defense claims and accusations of abuse are more likely to give ammunition to those who think domestic violence isn’t a serious epidemic and that BWS doesn’t exist. It is similar to how the women who make false rape accusations overshadow the thousands of very real rape victims — the specter of false reports hurts the men who are implicated, the police who are in charge of investigating, and the women who come forward with true reports of rape. One false allegation in the news informs an entire police precinct, jury pool, even families and friends; it stigmatizes and discourages victims. While many studies agree that only 2 to 8 percent of reports of rape are false, even one highly publicized false report can undermine a future victims’ fight for justice.
Society has very little tolerance for women who fight back. Victims of domestic violence who eventually kill their abusers already have enough prejudices and biases to overcome in the courtroom; saddling them with the burden of bogus self-defense claims that stigmatize Battered Woman Syndrome and domestic abuse defenses is simply unfair.