The Law: Getting Away With Murder


The governors of Ohio and Maryland both recently pardoned a number of women imprisoned for killing their mates. The reasoning underlying the actions of outgoing Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer was that the women had not been allowed to describe adequately in court how their lives and well-being had been threatened by their husbands. They could have argued self-defense, of course; under the law, a person may defend herself with force if she is physically threatened and has no alternative.

But it was by no means clear that these women had no alternative. In recent years, we have come to a new understanding of the motives that drive women to murder their spouses. In many cases, these women are not threatened at the moment they kill. Rather, they have endured long-term abuse, while feeling unable to extricate themselves from the relationship. They then kill a husband or lover, with whom they usually live, at a moment of opportunity. In the seminal case depicted in the film The Burning Bed, Francine Hughes set her husband on fire as he slept.

Such women are said to suffer from "battered-woman syndrome." They are so psychologically debilitated by abuse that they lose their judgment and their ability to protect themselves. Eventually, they may come to feel that murdering a spouse is the logical way out of the situation. Professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association have filed amicus-curiae briefs in support of the battered-woman defense. One psychologist, Lenore Walker, has testified in more than 100 trials in which defendants claimed to have been incapacitated by battered-woman syndrome.

Courts now routinely accept battered woman syndrome. New York University law professor Holly Maguigan told Newsday: "Given that the highest court of New York has endorsed battered-woman syndrome, a judge refusing to admit it [as a defense] would be subjected to intense scrutiny." Meanwhile, a New York assemblywoman has introduced legislation to grant clemency to battered women who kill their mates, and a California assemblyman has proposed a law that would codify the battered-woman defense. Following the lead of Celeste and Schaefer, the governors of New York, Texas, and several other states are considering pardons for battered women.

But the battered-woman defense, however well intentioned, does not serve the goal of reducing family violence. Indeed, by undermining personal responsibility, the acceptance of this concept may actually contribute to the problem.

The details of cases said to involve battered-woman syndrome rarely fit the generic definition. Quite often, the abuse victims and the men they kill seem to have been involved in consensual relationships, from which the women derived basic emotional gratification. The women refused to leave the relationships when given a real opportunity to do so because they welcomed the intensity of their spouses' feelings. Francine Hughes, for example, had separated several times from her husband Mickey, only to return to him voluntarily.

The relationships that culminate in the killing of a spouse are often marked by escalating violence in which both men and women participate. Men are more likely to physically assault a spouse, and they tend to inflict more damage when they do so. But the final assault may not be the first time the woman has tried to hurt the man, and in some cases the violence seems very much premeditated.

The Baltimore Sun investigated several of the women freed by Schaefer. Among other things, it discovered that one woman had hired a hit man to kill her husband and then collected on her husband's life insurance. An article in the Columbus Dispatch reported that 15 of the 25 women pardoned by Celeste had not been physically abused. Six had discussed killing their spouses before doing so, and two had tracked down and then killed husbands from whom they were separated.

More troubling still are cases where battered-woman syndrome is used to excuse abuse and neglect of children. In their book Intimate Violence, researchers Richard Gelles and Murray Straus report that entire families are characterized by cultures of violence. In households where men abuse women and women retaliate against men, there is also much more violence against children.

In 1989, for example, the body of 3-year-old Andrew Mitchell was found in a shallow grave in Queens, New York. Andrew's mother, Geraldine Mitchell, admitted to burying the boy after her companion, George Chavis, had beaten him to death. Mitchell described how Chavis frequently beat her and her child. "He got jealous because I paid more attention to Andrew than to him," she testified. She also reported that, shortly before her son's death, Chavis scalded the boy with hot water and that she then beat her son for crying.

Mitchell pleaded guilty to manslaughter as part of an agreement for her testimony at Chavis's murder trial. But her attorney claimed the prosecution charged her with a crime only "because she's black and poor." The attorney argued that Manhattanite Hedda Nussbaum was not charged in a similar case in which she allowed her husband, Joel Steinberg, to beat to death their 6-year-old adopted daughter, Lisa. Nussbaum had let Lisa lie comatose on a bathroom floor for 12 hours before she called for help. During this time, she smoked cocaine with Steinberg.

During the Steinberg trial, Nussbaum was regarded as a textbook example of the battered woman, having given up all self-respect and personal independence in response to Steinberg's derision and assaults. The national media portrayed her sympathetically; a 1989 People cover story was titled, "Hedda's Story." At the same time, many people—feminists included—were appalled that a woman could participate in the abuse and death of a child, even if the woman was being assaulted herself.

In the 1990 book What Lisa Knew, Joyce Johnson describes Lisa's body as "a map of pain," covered with scratches, bruises, and dirt. Johnson, like the jury that tried Steinberg, felt Nussbaum was implicated in Lisa's death. For Johnson, Nussbaum was a wholly self-absorbed individual, incapable of looking beyond her own pain to understand—or care about—Lisa's. (A baby boy who also lived with Steinberg and Nussbaum was found tethered and urine-soaked by the police investigating Lisa's killing.)

In any case of abuse within a family, there are likely to be serious problems all around. In March, Jane Scott was arrested in New York for leaving her 7-month-old boy in an unlocked apartment while she went on a six-day crack binge. She returned to find the baby had starved to death. Scott reportedly told a neighbor that she had left the apartment because her boyfriend had beaten her. The neighbor said that she replied to Scott, "If he beat you up, what makes you think he wouldn't beat the baby up?"

Contributing Editor Stanton Peele is a psychologist and health-care researcher. He is co-author, with Archie Brodsky and Mary Arnold, of The Truth About Addiction and Recovery: The Life Process Program for Outgrowing Destructive Habits (Simon & Schuster).