Thursday, May 17, 2007

Signaling Effect

Politicians love to talk about how they're "tough on crime." However, one crime that seems to be met with a resounding shrug is men killing their wives, girlfriends, or exs. Domestic violence by men against women, in general, tends to get downplayed in the criminal justice system. Oh, we deny it--we say that we treat these crimes with revulsion and disgust, and punish the perpetrators harshly. But the stats don't lie--and the story Tulane Law Professor Tania Tetlow tells is chilling in that respect:
Everette Simpson married three times, and three times he murdered his wife. Simpson stabbed his first wife 16 times with a butcher knife and then served nine years in prison. He stabbed his second wife with a hatchet, was allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter and served 11 years before being paroled. Last month in Slidell, Simpson beat his third wife and her brother to death and then set the house on fire to conceal the murders. He died in the fire, so at least he won't be released and marry again.

Sheriff Jack Strain asked how a "monster" like this could have been free to kill again. The answer is simple -- the national average sentence for men who kill their female partners is two to six years in prison. Criminal justice systems and juries do not, on average, treat the murder of women by their husbands terribly seriously.

In contrast, women who kill their male partners are sentenced to an average of 15 years, three times as much as male defendants, despite the fact that many of these women killed in self-defense.

Men who kill their spouses don't usually "get away with it", but they often get off light. Two to six years is not particularly impressive for homicide--and don't think it doesn't send a signal. These are not the types of sentences that deter men bent on exacting vengeance on their partners.

And the women who are stuck in these relationships? Well, they're pretty much left to fend for themselves. And if "fending for themselves" involve killing their abusers, well, then the hammer comes down:
Women in abusive relationships find themselves trapped. They know that the system will not, or sometimes cannot, protect them from husbands who promise to track them down and kill them. Ashley Ruffins was stabbed to death last year after the police in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes failed to answer her repeated begging to enforce a protective order. Even when the police respond immediately, as they did in Mandeville last month, they could not protect Adrienne McGee from being shot down in the middle of the street in broad daylight.

But if these women try to save their own lives, fight back and end up killing their batterers, they often face life sentences in prison. Their children are effectively orphaned. Three recent New Orleans trials, all held in the same month, illustrate this fact:

In March, an Orleans Parish jury convicted Catina Curley of second-degree murder for shooting a husband who had abused her. Catina provided police records and witness testimony that her husband had beaten her for years, broken her nose and dislocated her shoulder. Catina testified that she shot him in fear for her life, but the jury was neither willing to acquit her or convict her of a lesser charge of manslaughter. Second-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

Another jury offered different justice to Clarence Warden for beating his girlfriend to death with a banister. Warden claimed that he acted in self-defense. Given disputed evidence of a physical fight between the two, the jury erred on the side of acquittal of the male defendant.

A third jury convicted Jeremy Colbert of manslaughter rather than murder. Prosecutors provided evidence at trial that Colbert stalked and beat his ex-girlfriend for years. When he saw her speaking to a male friend (an acquaintance she had only known for a few weeks), Colbert shot and killed the man. Colbert's lawyer successfully argued to the jury that Colbert's ex-girlfriend "riled him up" so he should not be subject to a murder conviction.

The high school LD topic this past fall (November/December) dealt with whether women should be allowed to respond with lethal force to men who repeatedly abused them. The evidence some of these debaters mustered was truly horrifying--for all our supposed outrage, there is a persistent trend among our nation's law enforcement apparatus that seems far more interested in protecting the abusers over the abused, the batterers over the battered. We don't have the resources available to help these women, and we really aren't showing that much interest in remedying the situation. Thus, Professor Tetlow ends her piece with what will surely be a controversial, but telling, comparison:
When we look at other cultures overseas, we understand that violence against women is a function of power. We know that honor killings and bride burnings systematically exclude women from public life and make women fear for their lives if they disobey the rules.

But in our own country, despite more than 1,000 such murders a year, we see domestic violence as aberrant, the result of a bad upbringing or mental illness. We treat domestic violence as sad but inevitable, as irrelevant to our own safety, as having nothing to do with the status of women.

I've blogged on this point before: We have no right to be as smug as we are in this respect. Are we better than Saudi Arabia? Yes. But "better than Saudi Arabia" is no rallying cry. And American women, faced with a criminal justice system that is utterly unresponsive to their beatings, their murders, have every right to wonder whether our claims to care are so much hot air. The disparities between how we are treating men and women are striking, and a very strong signal about what type of violence we are willing to overlook or condone. We don't have the evidence on our side. And the onus is on us to start remedying that situation--and in the interim, not act surprised when women facing repeated violent abuse sometimes try to turn on their attackers.

Via Feminist Law Profs


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that domestic violence by men against women gets downplayed. However, domestic violence by women against men gets downplayed much more!

I support self-defense, but some people don't know how to defend themselves in these situations. We need to reach out to victims of domestic violence and give them the legal resources to defend themselves.

Anonymous said...

I think some of the reasons for the stats you present are the following: Men that murder there spouse, do not necessarly have existing criminal records. They go to trial and the jury feels like the person is only a threat to the spouse, not society. Also the murders usually happens during an argument of some sort that escalates to murder. While women that murder their husbands usually do not do it during the heat of an argument. Rather they murder after the beating is over, or before the next one can start. In many cases it has to be premeditated for the women to even have a chance at defending themselves. Which unfortunately gives the prosecuting attorneys more leverage to push for stronger sentences. At least that is what the stats tell me.


Anonymous said...

I don't remember the priest telling me when I went to Confession when I was a kid, "Well, Lance, it was wrong of you to disobey your mom and talk back to her like that, but since you set the table every night and do your homework and sent your aunt a birthday card, what the heck! You're a good kid. Your sins are forgiven automatically. No need for you to do any penance." 文秘 心脑血管 糖尿病 高血压 糖尿病 高血脂 高脂血症 冠心病 心律失常 心肌病 心肌炎 中风 偏瘫 脑出血心律失常 什么是心力衰竭 神经衰弱 心肌梗死 心脏瓣膜病 先天性心脏病 动脉硬化 风湿性心脏病 脑瘫 癫痫 羊角风 老年性痴呆 低血压 急性感染性心内膜炎 雷诺综合症 脑血栓 血栓闭塞性脉管炎 周围血管异常 肺心病 什么是心绞痛 脑梗塞 And maybe it's happened a few times and I haven't heard about it but I can't recall a judge ever letting somebody walk on the grounds the crook was a good guy and his friends really like him.

PG said...

I agree with Davesnothere's analysis to some extent, but I think there's a gendered component that he's missing. We think of male violence as something that happens in the heat of the moment, that a man and a woman can be fighting and he accidentally hits her too hard and she's dead. Men are thought to be hotheaded. Men get "riled." Women's violence is stereotyped as premeditated, deliberate, a conscious attempt to kill rather than an unintentional excess of force. Hence the development of the theory of Battered Women's Syndrome; the possibility of an excessive response to a danger had to be reasserted as an option for the female psyche.

Activism007 said...

Re: "Violence By Women "DOWNPLAYED":
Domestic Violence committed BY Women, Against "downplayed" because the Department of Justice Crime Statistics PROVE how VERY RARE it is. 95% of DV victims ARE women...and of the MEN WHO ARE VICTIMS...the vast majority of these men are victims of their MALE partners in HOMOSEXUAL UNIONS. SO...since actual Male Victims injured by their female partners is a mere *1.3%* AND many of these are SELF defense, THIS may explain why the topic of men being "dominated, controlled and injured" by women is "DOWNPLAYED". The US Department of Justice Crime Stats DON'T LIE...BUT

Though in the early stages of a relationship abusers can be particularly charming, they DO show themselves in writing when they are least aware. The author of this article has CRACKED THE CODE on DV and DV's the SAME as ANY other CULTURE that seeks to CONTROL, DOMINATE, and DESTROY its females. DV is a HATE CRIME just like ANY other violent act motivated by the systemic belief that these humans are not of equal value. Male Supremacy is EVERYWHERE in America. DV/Murder is just one of the barometers.