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Legal Reforms Urged for Battered Women Charged in Slayings

January 21, 1988|SANDY ROVNER | The Washington Post

They live for years as victims, as prisoners, as veritable slaves. They are subjected to extraordinary physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their men. Rarely does one actually leave. Most are too intimidated, too dependent, too helpless or too frightened.

In case after case, pleas for help--to family, to police--are turned away.

Then one day they are pushed that iota too far, and they move in the only way they can think of to end the abuse--by ending the life of the abuser.

Nobody knows how many of these women are in prisons today, serving sentences up to life imprisonment. Charles Patrick Ewing, psychologist and attorney, believes that as many as 1,000 women a year in this country are imprisoned for murder or manslaughter because they killed an abusing husband or boyfriend.

Other estimates put the total number of abused women in this country--many of whom are presumably at risk of taking violent action themselves--in the millions.

There is no room as yet in the U.S. criminal justice system for the kind of imperative that provokes these killings. As Ewing puts it in his book, "Battered Women Who Kill: Psychological Self-Defense as Legal Justification" (Lexington Books, $24.95), "This small but increasingly visible minority of battered women are in many cases doubly victimized: once by the men who have battered them and again by a system of criminal justice which holds them to an unrealistic standard of accountability."

According to the law in most states, using self-defense as a homicide defense requires the presence of an immediate physical threat. Said Ewing in a recent interview, "In order to claim self-defense, you have to kill to protect yourself from an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury. Yet in many of these cases, the women kill the men when the latter are asleep or coming in the front door."

Ewing, a psychologist and attorney at State University of New York at Buffalo, believes laws should be changed to take into account the possibility of self-defense not just against a specific attack but against accumulated years of abuse, especially the kind of psychological abuse that leads to psychic destruction.

He recently analyzed 100 cases in which battered women had killed the abusing husband. "I found five cases where the women had hired people to commit the killing. I know that sounds shocking . . . but you can't expect these women to kill the batterer when he is battering. It is unreasonable to expect retaliation during a battering incident."

But because of the law's restrictive requirements, "what it means is that most of the women are convicted."

"People have this idea that battered women who kill are being acquitted," says social worker Sue Osthoff of the Self-Defense Program of Women Against Abuse, a Philadelphia organization. "It's one of the myths.

"They think, 'Oh, you just get up on the stand and you cry a little and you get off.' It's not true, and it's very harmful to the defense of these women to believe that. These women are going to jail, even though as a group they have the least extensive criminal records of any group behind bars."

Angela Browne, a Denver social psychologist who in 1984 conducted one of several often-cited studies of women accused of murdering or attempting to murder a spouse or boyfriend, noted that, according to FBI statistics, "fewer men are charged with first- or second-degree murder for killing a woman they have known than are women who kill a man they have known." In her study of 42 cases, Browne found that 92% of the attacked men had arrest records and more than 80% drank heavily.

Of the 36 women whose partners had died, every one was charged with first-degree murder. Twenty of the women eventually received jail sentences, including one of 50 years. Women, Browne concluded, "often face harsher penalties than men who kill their partners." She cites a 1978 case as illustrative of "discrepancies in attitudes which may lead to this uneven sentencing:

"An Indiana prosecutor refused to prosecute for murder a man who beat and kicked his ex-wife to death in the presence of a witness and raped her as she lay dying. Filing a manslaughter charge instead, he commented, 'He didn't mean to kill her. He just meant to give her a good thumping.' "

Ewing became interested in the problems these women face in the criminal justice system when he was a practicing clinical psychologist, and he continued his specialization as a Harvard law student.

There have been unsuccessful efforts over the last decade, he says, to expand the self-defense concept to include women who have been abused over a period of time. Between 75 and 90% of cases are lost even when evidence of abuse is admitted. Ewing would like to see state criminal statutes amended to expand the legal concept of self-defense to a doctrine that includes psychological as well as physical abuse.

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