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In 2017 in North Carolina, a man convicted of stabbing his pregnant wife to death in their bedroom was released from prison after only 7 years.
Last May, a New Jersey man was sentenced to 15 years for the June 2017 murder of his wife, who died of blunt force trauma and was found floating in the couple’s backyard pool. Her online search history showed she was planning on leaving her husband.
In Nebraska, a man who was found guilty of severing his wife’s head has been allowed to reenter the community, with supervision, after spending only five years in a psychiatric hospital.
Meanwhile, women like Marissa Alexander are sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot into the wall near where her abusive husband stood, minutes after he had wrapped his hands around her neck to strangle her.
Kim Dadou received 17 years for fatally shooting her boyfriend after he climbed on top of her in his car and threatened to kill her. This was also after she endured four years of his abuse.
Crystal Potter, interviewed recently for This is Life with Lisa Ling in an episode called, “Women Who Kill,” served 20 years in prison for shooting her husband after he got out a gun and aimed it at her head. Again, this was following Potter living through his weekly beatings.
According to statistics compiled by the ACLU, women who kill their partners will spend an average of 15 years behind bars, while men who kill their female partners serve much shorter sentences, on average between 2 to 6 years. While most would agree homicide dictates a sizable prison stint, the question is, why are women being punished so much more harshly, especially when you consider this statistic: At least 90 percent of women in prison for killing men report having been abused by those men?
After Potter got married, her husband isolated them in a rural home in California. Potter wasn’t allowed to leave—not even to even walk down their driveway to the mailbox. She had to retire from her job as a police officer with the Air Force. And her husband began beating her on a weekly basis.
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Just months into their marriage, he was becoming delusional, Potter attests. He began building an arsenal of weapons, convinced the apocalypse was coming. He bought large dogs and trained them to kill. Potter was scared.
One afternoon, Potter took a ride on her horse that they kept at their home, the home she wasn’t supposed to leave. When she returned some time later, her husband told her, “I’m going to kill that horse.” They began to argue. Crystal says her husband grabbed her by the hair and began punching her before dragging her back to the house. He took out a gun and Crystal found herself staring down its barrel. Crystal thought she was about to die. She grabbed a gun from a nearby table and shot her husband nine times.
“For some reason, I just kept firing,” she tells Ling.
A jury determined Crystal used excessive force and sentenced her to 22 years, even with a claim of self-defense. The brutal beatings Potter’s husband inflicted on her for months prior likely weren’t admissible as evidence. As attorney Sunny Schwartz, interviewed by Ling, says, “Up until recently, battered women’s abuse was not allowed into evidence. There are hundreds of women inside [prison] who only defended themselves who are rotting for decades.”
Even today, Potter would face an uphill battle claiming abuse when she hadn’t disclosed it to anyone prior.
Ling asks Potter, “The only other person who really knows what happened is dead now. Why should people believe you?”
Potter replies, “People need to educate themselves and understand domestic violence. It takes a lot ... when a woman finally does raise a hand. We don’t just kill for nothing.”
Women Aren’t Supposed to Kill
“We are desensitized to men killing,” says Nora V. Demleitner, a professor of law at Washington and Lee University School of Law in Virginia who specializes in criminal justice and sentencing issues. According to Demleitner, gender disparity is prevalent throughout the justice system. That’s just one of the reasons women receive harsher sentences for murder.
“Women aren't supposed to be violent, and data indicates that they rarely are, compared to men. Women are supposed to reconcile, seek out others for help, mediate. The more violent the killing may be, the more do women defy this stereotype, setting them up for a high sentence.”
The second reason: Victim-blaming.
Even though women are usually considered less of a threat than male criminals overall and receive lower sentences then men for nonviolent crimes like fraud and burglary—and statistics show women are less likely to become repeat offenders—when it comes to domestic violence, an outdated mindset still prevails.
“She must have done something to nary this type of response,” Demleitner says. In other words, Potter is at fault not only for the murder, but for the abuse that preceded it. Demleitner backs up Potter’s statement about being pushed to homicide.
“Women who are abused and resort to killing aren't just the victims of the abuser but also exemplify a failure of state protection.” She says heavy sentences for women after they kill an abusive partner may actually be the manifestation of our own frustration to protect survivors, and society’s inability to address the problem of domestic violence.
The third reason women may face a longer time behind bars? Social context, says Demleitner. “The less the judge can identify with her, the more condemnatory the sentence may be.” More than two-thirds of state court judges are male, while the overwhelming majority of victims of domestic violence are female.
But What About Self-Defense?
When women kill an abuser, the narrative doesn’t fit as neatly into the self-defense paradigm we often think of, says Demleitner, which demands an imminent threat. If a woman is attacked on the street by a masked man and she shoots and kills them, it’s clearly self-defense. But what about the woman whose abusive husband threatens to kill her if she tries to leave, or if she tells anyone about the abuse? What if he shows her the knife or the gun or the grave he’s dug for her? What if he tells her she’ll never be free?
“In battered spouses, [danger] has been building up over time. It’s very difficult to explain that to a jury.”
And let’s not forget a survivor’s appearance in court often doesn’t reflect what we expect a woman at the end of her rope to look like. Says Demleitner, “Often, the victim appears cold-blooded and intentional. That appearance reflects the trauma the victim has suffered rather than the same mental state more paradigmatic intentional killers have.”
More Experts, Education Needed
Ideally, cases like Potter’s would have a psychologist or psychiatrist take the stand, to talk about the mental effects of abuse and trauma, the psychological torture of domestic violence, says Demleitner. Unfortunately, they’re rarely affordable in these types of cases.
“The other response is, let’s not worry about the jury, let’s educate the judges so this doesn’t lead to a lengthy prison sentence,” says Demleitner.
Some attorney advocates are trying to do just that with a recently revised manual specifically aimed at judges and lawyers called Representing the Domestic Violence Survivor. Meanwhile, some states are trying to give judges more leniency power to survivors. In New York, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, signed into law last May, would allow judges to grant a shorter sentence to women who have been abused. However, in its first eligible case, a manslaughter trial in Buffalo, the defendant, Taylor Partlow, was given 8 years for stabbing her abusive boyfriend. The judge ruled the abuse she endured was not substantial enough to take into account.
Learn more about the gender disparity in the criminal justice system and how one attorney is fighting for change in, “Is the System Failing Survivors?”
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