Criminal sentencing of abused women tainted with sexism, suggests study

Sept. 14, 2012, 12:14 p.m.

"When people feel helpless, they make choices we wouldn't ideally make in other circumstances," said Adriana Molina, the co-chair of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles. (Jay from Norway/Flickr Creative Commons)

Battered women who kill their attackers are often viewed negatively and subject to unmitigated criminal sentences, says a new study.

The research, which appeared in Psychology of Women Quarterly, focused on 26 Canadian domestic homicide and abuse cases that took place over the span of more than three decades.

Study author Elisabeth Wells said in a statement that judges tended to minimize whatever violence had taken place against the women. They also tended to blame the women for being violent themselves and for also being caught up in drugs or alcohol.

"When a woman kills, she pushes the boundaries of traditional gender norms and the limits of explanation," wrote Wells in the study. And while that may be "perplexing" to some, she added, that's no reason not to take mitigating factors into account when sentencing women who kill their abusers.

Twnety-four women were convicted of manslaughter; in the remaining two cases, the women were found guilty of the more serious crime of second-degree murder.

Thirteen women were sentenced to prison. Four received conditional sentences and seven got suspended sentences.

What the law says

Stanley Goldman, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Downtown Los Angeles, says judges tend to have little sympathy for murderers, no matter what the circumstances.

"They tend not to bend over backwards to find mitigation in cases where someone's actually killed," he said. "I'm not certain it'd be much different if it were a man."

But Goldman said in California, prior abuse of a murder defendant can serve as a mitigating circumstance in court. It’s not lawful to act vengefully, he explained – that is, to kill an abuser because of what they’ve done to you.

But a judge might have a different view if a woman kills her abuser because she reasonably believed she was going to be attacked again.

That, said Goldman, could work as a mitigating circumstance, even if the woman’s belief was wrong. She would have to convince a jury that she honestly believed she was in danger, even if that belief wasn't necessarily reasonable or realistic.

The study suggests that the trend of women receiving harsher sentences is indicative of sexism. Goldman says that may very well be the case, but he can't be sure, in part because the sample size of the study was so small. He believes prior abuse can be a mitigating factor "in several ways."

"It could be mitigating if they were truly subject to abuse," he said. "Then their whole perception of behavior and fear [would] be a completely different reaction than a person who hasn't been subject to abuse."

Goldman also said American law tends to look at whether violence was premeditated or if it happened in the heat of the moment. He said maybe courts ought not be so rigid, and instead "give more consideration to the circumstances" and people who are involved.

"When they kill their abuser," he asked, "should they be treated on a different standard than someone who's cold-blooded, has no mercy, has no pity?"

The study suggests that sexism might be a factor in the harsher sentences given to women who killed their abusers. Goldman said that’s not clear because the sample size in the study is so small.

But Goldman said it may be that judges strive so hard to be even-handed in cases involving lethal violence carried out by women that that they don’t consider mitigating factors that might reduce a sentence: that men are usually the perpetrators in abuse cases, or that women and men experience abuse differently.

Goldman said “it may be that the judges think what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

An advocate's perspective

Adriana Molina, the co-chair of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles, says she doesn't think it's a "gender situation."

"I don't tend to play a gender bias card," she said.

But Molina makes it clear that just because a victim killed a perpetrator "does not mean the history of abuse was mutual."

"It may have been one-sided up until the time, and there are many stories I've heard where it's that way," she said, telling of a women who'd been abused by her husband repeatedly. When she tried to leave the relationship, her husband fought back. The woman ended up shooting him.

"It's the proverbial drop that overfilled the bucket," she said.

Molina said the consequences can be far-reaching for women who attack their attackers. If the woman is a mother, her children – who may have already lost one parent in the violence – now lose another to prison. When the woman serves her time and is released, she might struggle to find a job with a felony on her record.

"This doesn't mean we're going to condone that anyone who's been a victim of abuse should perpetrate abuse, said Molina. She said that's a "double-edged sword."

But women who are abused often feel hopeless and helpless, she said, especially if they sought help to free themselves from abuse and found none.

"When people feel helpless, they make choices we wouldn't ideally make in other circumstances," she said.

Los Angeles saw more than 10,000 reports of domestic violence in 2011. Here are the South L.A. numbers for spousal battery and aggravated assault reports. Battery is defined as the intentional, unpermitted act of harming someone else; aggravated assault is defined as causing serious bodily harm to someone or attacking them with a deadly weapon.

– In the LAPD's Newton Division: 487 cases of spousal battery, 11 cases of spousal aggravated assault.

– 77th Street Division: 659 battery cases; four aggravated assault cases.

– Southwest Division: 643 battery cases; 15 aggravated assault cases.

Officer Christopher No, a spokesman for the LAPD, says in his experience, the perpetrators in domestic violence are more often male than female, but not by too wide a margin.

If you're a victim of domestic violence:: You can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-(800)-799-7233; the Southern California Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-(800)-978-3600 or the L.A. City Attorney's Victim Assistance Unit at (213) 978-2097.

Photo by Jay from Norway via Flickr Creative Commons.

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