WASHINGTON — In a case that has captured the lurid fascination of a nation, a 24-year-old manicurist from Venezuela went on trial in a small Virginia courthouse Monday for cutting off her husband's penis to avenge what her lawyers say was years of abuse and rape.
Looking tired but composed, Lorena Bobbitt was whisked through a phalanx of TV cameras and reporters in Manassas, Va., to face charges of malicious wounding in the same courtroom where her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt, 26, was acquitted in November of sexually assaulting her.
She faces up to 20 years in prison, if convicted.
In opening remarks to the jury of seven women and five men, Mrs. Bobbitt's lawyers indicated they plan to argue that she was driven to the mental edge by years of physical and verbal abuse by her bar-bouncer husband--driven to the point where, on the night of June 23, 1993, she cut off his penis with a kitchen knife in a temporary fit of insanity as he lay sleeping after what she says was a bout of forced sex.
Beaten so badly that she sometimes looked like she had been attacked "by a wild animal," pressured into having an unwanted abortion and constantly humiliated by her muscular, 200-pound, ex-Marine husband, Mrs. Bobbitt was the "classic battered woman," said defense attorney Lisa Kimler. In the end, Kimler said, she was driven over the edge by one sexual assault too many in the four-year "reign of terror" that was her marriage.
"What we have is Lorena Bobbitt's life juxtaposed against John Wayne Bobbitt's penis," Kimler said. "It was his penis from which she could not escape and . . . I submit to you that at the end of this case you will come to one conclusion: that a life is more valuable than a penis."
Drawing on testimony from friends, acquaintances and medical experts, the defense team will try to convince the jury that Mrs. Bobbitt surrendered to an "irresistible impulse" when she went into the kitchen of her Manassas apartment, came back with a knife and severed her husband's penis after he forced himself upon her after a night of bar-hopping and beer-drinking with a friend.
But John Bobbitt, taking the stand as the prosecution's first witness, denied that he had forced his wife to have sex with that night. He said she had initiated the love-making by fondling him in bed, but he was "too exhausted to perform" and quickly fell asleep.
Lawyers for Bobbitt told reporters they did not believe that Mrs. Bobbitt's defense would be able to substantiate a claim of "irresistible impulse," a plea that is tantamount to temporary insanity.
"To prove irresistible impulse, you have to show it was an act done in passion, suddenly and unpremeditated," said Bobbitt's attorney, Gregory Murphy. But "her testimony at the first trial," in which Bobbitt was acquitted of rape, "contradicts that fact," he said.
Murphy asserted that Mrs. Bobbitt instead acted out of jealousy because her husband was seeing other women and the couple was on the verge of a divorce. "She was vindictive. She said: 'If I can't have John, no one can" Murphy said.
Chief prosecutor Paul B. Ebert argued that Mrs. Bobbitt had committed a "serious crime"--one he urged the jurors not to treat lightly, despite "all the jokes" and the "zoo-like" atmosphere surrounding the two-story brick courthouse in downtown Manassas.
The case, which Virginia prosecutors believe is the first involving this type of offense in U.S. court history, has brought reporters from as far away as Europe and South America to Manassas, a normally sleepy town 30 miles from Washington near a Civil War battle site.
"We've had capital murder cases that have attracted national attention in the past but nothing ever like this," Ebert said in a pretrial interview. "The vultures have really descended on us. . . . It looks like Super Bowl Sunday."
Television trucks with satellite dishes lined the road leading to the courthouse while hawkers peddled "Where's the Beef?" T-shirts and other memorabilia.
Lawyers for both sides said that they were upset by the carnival-like spectacle, but Jerilyn Ross, a Washington specialist in anxiety disorders, said she was not surprised by the public's fascination with the case.
"Literature is filled with references to castration . . . to the taking away of a man's power. It's man's worst fear," Ross said. "What people find so frightening and at the same time fascinating about this case (is that) somebody actually did it."