Criminal Justice System Fails Women Who Kill Their Abusers: Study

A new report resulting from a four-year research project examining how the law is failing to provide adequate protection to women who kill their abusers has revealed that dozens of women could still be in prison for unsafe murder convictions, reports the Justice Gap.

The report examined 92 cases, primarily from the past ten years, where women had been driven to kill their partners and found that in at least 71 of these cases the defendant had experienced violence or abuse at the hands of the deceased. Only six of these women were acquitted on self-defense grounds, the rest convicted of either murder (43 percent), or manslaughter (46 percent). If a defendant is able to successfully rely on either defense of “loss of control” or diminished responsibility” in a murder trial, the jury will instead convict for manslaughter, and the presiding judge is no longer obligated to impose a life sentence.

In order to avoid giving evidence and facing cross-examination in court, many women instead opt to submit guilty pleas to manslaughter. The report states that these pleas are ‘troubling, because women’s decisions are based not on the merits of their case, but on a series of systemic disincentives’.

In addition, women who have experienced trauma may suffer problems with memory and lack the ability to recall events in a logical or chronological order, resulting in difficult situations where women are “perceived as being inconsistent and, therefore, possibly lying.” In 71 percent of cases examined, the defendant used a knife to stab the deceased, a fact that can have knock-on effects for women at the sentencing stage of criminal proceedings as it is considered an aggravating factor leading to tougher sentences.

The report notes that women – typically of smaller stature than their male partners – are more likely to resort to use of a weapon, whereas for men, strangulation with bare hands is the second most common form of femicide. Researchers noted that homicide is a last resort, and in part a product of the failure of criminal justice agencies to combat domestic abuse and coercive control in their nascent stages.

According to the report, poor police responses to reports of domestic violence are “common experiences of many women.” By analyzing past Domestic Homicide Reviews, researchers concluded that police have prematurely dropped charges on five occasions deciding to take “no further action” after being called to incidents of serious assault.

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