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Battered women morally entitled to kill abusers, U of O professor asserts

The Ottawa Citizen by Don Butler 10 December 2013 

(Article profiling IO Grad Liz Sheehy)

Battered women are morally entitled to kill their abusive partners, even those who are passed out or asleep, says a respected University of Ottawa law professor.

Elizabeth Sheehy raises the provocative idea in her new book, eight years in the making, called Defending Battered Women on Trial. It will be published Dec. 15 by UBC Press.

“Why should women live in anticipatory dread and hypervigilence?” she writes in the book’s concluding chapter. Would it not be just, Sheehy asks, “to shift the risk of death to those men whose aggressions have created such dehumanizing fear in their female partners?”

In an interview with the Citizen, Sheehy — who received a prestigious award from the Canadian Bar Association for her scholarship on women and the law this summer — answered that question in the affirmative.

Battered women can justly kill abusive partners “because a woman in that circumstance has already lived in captivity,” she said. “She’s already lived in a form of imprisonment and enslavement in a relationship like that.”

Sheehy likened women in abusive relationships to prisoners of war. “We would never say of a prisoner of war that it’s not just that she or he kill their captor to escape. It is just to kill to escape that kind of enslavement.”

While the legal system sometimes excuses battered women who kill abusive partners by accepting a verdict of manslaughter on compassionate grounds, that does not go far enough, Sheehy argues. “We should say you were right to kill to save your own life.”

Sheehy’s book, which is written for a general audience, is built around the trials of 11 battered women, 10 of whom killed their partners. She draws heavily on trial transcripts to examine the evidence and the legal strategies of the defence lawyers.

To select those 11 trials, Sheehy studied 91 cases of battered women who killed their partners between 1990, when the Supreme Court of Canada recognized “battered women syndrome” as a legal defence, and 2005. In all of those cases, she writes, self-defence was at least arguable.

Sixty-two were ultimately convicted of some form of homicide — 49 pleaded guilty to manslaughter — and the other 29 were either acquitted or spared a trial.

Sheehy was pleasantly surprised by the higher-than-expected number who were either acquitted or had charges dropped. But she said it was “disappointing and worrisome” to see how many women had pleaded guilty.

One reason is the mandatory life sentence for murder, with no parole eligibility for 25 years for first degree murder and 10 years for second degree murder, said Sheehy. Mandatory minimums are a “huge, huge barrier” to justice for battered women who kill their abusers, she said.

In particular, they are “an incredible threat” for women with children. “It puts them in the position of having to plead guilty (to manslaughter) to avoid the spectre of such a terrible sentence,” she said, even though many have some basis for arguing self-defence.

To remedy that, Sheehy argues there should be a “statutory escape hatch” that allows battered women charged with murder to escape mandatory minimum sentences.

Moreover, prosecutors should charge battered women who kill their abusers with manslaughter rather than murder, she said, to give them a chance to argue self-defence “without bearing the onerous consequences of failure.”

Charging battered women with murder is “so arbitrary when you know that there’s no other way that a woman can spontaneously defend her life,” Sheehy said.

“Men can kill women with their bare hands, and they do. Women almost never kill men that way. They can’t,” she said.

While very few women kill abusive men who are asleep or passed out, it’s “unfair” to charge them with first degree murder, Sheehy argues. “It’s not fair to characterize it as the most heinous form of murder, because it may be their own route to survival.”

Battered women’s “moral courage,” Sheehy writes in her book, “deserves our respect.

“When women kill to save their own lives, they assert that they matter, that their lives count — even more than the lives of their abusers.”

After all their abusers have done to them, “they have somehow taken a stand for their own humanity and saved themselves,” she writes. “And for this we should also be grateful.”