Convicted Survivors — an overview

An overview of original research by

Elizabeth Dermody Leonard, Ph.D. Department of Anthropology/Sociology Vanguard University Costa Mesa, CA 92626

Hearing of the State of California Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Construction & Operations.

California Institution for Women, Oct. 12, 2000

One Woman’s Experience:

They met when she was 24 and he was 27. Dating was wonderful. After the wedding, things were not so wonderful. She now serves a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for spousal homicide:

“Direct attempts on my life? Like when he held me down and choked me, left marks on me? Or I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a gun pointed at my head. Or him sticking a gun in my mouth and threatening to pull the trigger. Digging a hole on our property, telling me it was my grave, and that he wouldn’t be guilty of murder because he wouldn’t kill me before he put me in it. Threats against my family. When I did manage to get the guts to leave him, I had $3 in my pocket. I went to the bus station and the bus station wasn’t open. I sat around outside the building, waiting for the bus to come so I could go in and get a ticket to wherever the money would take me. And the bus didn’t come. And it didn’t come. And then I heard the truck. I heard the horn honk. He knew I was there. He knew I was there. He always knew everything. He knew everything. He knew what I was thinking. He always knew. He always knew what I was going to do before I did it. Outside the bus station he never said anything to me; he just kept honking the horn until I finally came around, and he went like this with his finger for me to come to him. He took me home and he scared me because he wasn’t screaming; he wasn’t hollering; he wasn’t throwing; and he didn’t hit me. I didn’t understand that. I understood him hitting me and screaming and yelling. But I didn’t understand the silence. We drove home and we sat in the truck and I sat there waiting. I kept hoping he would hurry up and get out so I could get out. I was not allowed to exit the truck unless he got out first. I had to have permission to leave his presence or that was insulting him; that was disrespecting him. I sat there waiting and waiting. We must have sat there 20 minutes before he ever uttered a word. He finally told me, “Next time, I will not come after you.” Very calmly, quietly. I thought to myself, “He’s going to admit that it’s over.” I said, “Can we get help? You willing to try one more time, and if it doesn’t work, you’ll let me go?” He said, “I never said I’d let you go.” I was, “But you said you wouldn’t come after me again.” He said, “Not like this. You’ll come back to me begging me on your hands and knees for me to take you back.” I looked at him and said, “what ever makes you think that if I managed to get away from you that I’d come back to you, let alone on my hands and knees?’ He turned to look at me and I saw the evil. And he told me, “Trust me, you’ll beg me.” He sat and described to me what he would do to my mother, my grandparents. He told me he would continue on with each member of my family until I came to him, begging him to stop. I knew that I would never get away. I believed he was capable of doing what he said he was going to do. I believed it without any doubts. He always did everything he said was going to do to me. The sexual abuse got worse. He started using foreign objects. He used a gun on me rectally. A loaded gun. I remember begging him to pull the trigger. So I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. He said that was too easy. Told me it was too easy.”


For women, home is a place of greater danger than public places—more dangerous than the workplace, more dangerous than the highway, more dangerous than city streets. Men assault their former, estranged, or current wives, fiancées, and girlfriends at alarming rates with near impunity. In the United States, women are more likely to be attacked, injured, raped, or killed by a current or former male partner than by all other types of assailants combined. Over 4 million American women are abused in their homes each year, about 2 million suffering severe abuse. A woman assaulted by her intimate partner is more likely to need medical care than if her assailant is a stranger; up to 35 percent of all emergency room visits by women are for injuries caused by domestic assault. Nearly half of battered women are sexually abused, assaulted, and raped by their partners and it often continues during pregnancy. Nearly 3.5 million children see or hear at least one incident of domestic violence each year and they are at great risk for abuse themselves.

Inevitably, the question that arises in the minds of most people who hear about intimate violence is why does she stay? That this question is routinely asked in the absence of the more relevant: why doesn’t he stop beating her? Why doesn’t he leave or let her leave? reveals a widespread gender bias in our society. In addition to making the woman rather than her abuser responsible for the cessation of violence, the question assumes:

  1. leaving is easy or simple—when abusive partners restrict women’s access to finances and outside social support; some men sabotage cars, rip telephones off walls, threaten, and go to other extreme measures to ensure women stay.
  2. the woman has not made attempts to leave—when batterers locate and threaten them or their children, when restraining orders are not enforced.
  3. the woman has not left—when half or more leave only to be stalked and harassed.
  4. leaving stops the violence—when separation often escalates the violence. Women who leave are at 75% higher risk of being killed by their abusers and remain at increased risk for at least two years.

Intimate Homicide

Violent relationships sometimes escalate into homicide. Battering is the most common precursor to the killing of an intimate partner, regardless of gender. Intimate homicide is highly gendered in nature: when a man kills his partner, it is usually when she tries to end the relationship and the murder scene tends to be unusually brutal; when a woman kills her partner, the event is likely to be victim-precipitated and it often occurs as she uses lethal force to defend herself and/or her children. However, most women who kill are charged with murder or manslaughter and plead self-defense. These women rarely find leniency in the courtroom. Most, up to 80% are convicted or accept a plea and receive long, harsh sentences, heavier than men convicted for the same offense.

As a group, battered women homicide offenders are close to invisible. Criminal justice agencies do not collect systematic data on victim-offender relationships in all homicide cases. Trial transcripts often are devoid of evidence of abuse. Correctional files rarely reveal which women killed abusive partners. After incarceration, many women do not reveal the context of the homicide nor do they always identify themselves as domestic violence survivors. Thus, no one knows for sure how many women are in prison for killing their abusers. Current estimates range from 800 to 2,000. However, these estimates may be conservative. Combining and extrapolating from official statistics and informed estimates of (1) the current female prison population (nearly 80,000), (2) the percentage of homicide offenders (about 12 percent), and (3) the likelihood of abusive partners among the homicide victims (at least 40 percent), suggests a significantly higher number of convicted survivors—perhaps over 4, 000 women or more; or about 600 in California prisons.

Convicted Survivors in California

I began looking for cases of battered women homicide offenders at CIW in the fall of 1995. In the spring of 1996 I interviewed 42 women convicted for the death of their male intimate partners. Interviewees discussed their cases and experiences with candor even when it was clearly very painful. Many stated that this interview was their first opportunity to freely share their lives, the abuse, and their experiences within the criminal justice system. The three-hour interview included in-depth questions and a questionnaire drawn from the survey instrument used by Drs. Owen and Bloom that generated the representative profile of California’s women inmates.

Due to lack of data on these cases, this sample of battered women prisoners is self-selected, rather than a randomized sample. Therefore, this study does not claim to represent the all female intimate homicide offenders. Nevertheless, these 42 interviews provide sufficient information to produce a preliminary profile and comparison with the statewide profile of female inmates. Additionally, qualitative data illuminate the heretofore hidden areas of the lives of 42 women convicted for using deadly force to survive.

The Profile

The profile of battered women convicted for the death of their abusers differs substantially from that of the general population of California women prisoners. Women in the homicide group are older—median age: 47 vs. 33 years. Two-thirds of the women are white (vs. 1/3 white in general population), 17 percent are black, 7 percent are Hispanic, 5 percent Native American, and 2 percent are Asian American. Over one-half have completed between one and three years of college or technical school. Just over one-half worked outside the home, an additional 36 percent were supported by their spouses, and only 5 percent listed public assistance as their primary source of income. Over 80 percent have children and more than half of them participated in the overnight family visit program until a change in state policy made them ineligible for the quarterly overnight visits with their children and grandchildren. In childhood and in adulthood, women in the homicide group suffered significantly higher rates of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. However, for nearly two-thirds of the women, this was their only physically abusive adult relationship.

This was the first arrest for the vast majority, and of those who had a prior arrest, none of the offenses were violent. The most common prior arrest reported by the homicide group was for motor vehicle violations. Of the 42 cases, 22 received a 1st degree murder conviction; of those who have been convicted of 1st degree murder approximately 73 percent are white; 18 received a 2nd degree conviction; 65 percent are white. 2 women were convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Nearly one-third (13) of the women had codefendants (including teenage children), 10 of whom served or are serving time for this offense. Only two women received determinate sentences, 10 to 14 years and 15 to 19 years. The remaining 95 percent received some form of life sentence: 18 women serve between 7 and 20 to life (the 7 to lifers have served over 20 years to date); 15 are sentenced to more than 20 years to life; and 6 have life without the possibility of parole.

Despite histories clearly lacking in social pathology or violence, these women receive long, harsh sentences and hold little hope for parole. With their typically high levels of schooling, prison educational programming with its remedial emphasis has little to offer them. Women in this study lack criminal backgrounds, thus they have scant need for social rehabilitation. This demographic profile reveals significant childhood and adult maltreatment at the hands of family members and intimate partners. Unfortunately, there are few correctional programs to address these needs.

Based on interview data, prosecutors, judges, and juries show little sympathy or lenience toward battered women who kill their abusers. Despite a clear lack of criminal or violent histories, the overwhelming majority of these women are convicted of first or second degree murder and receive long, harsh sentences whether they are represented by private or by public attorneys. This finding suggests the possibility of a systematic criminal justice bias against battered women who kill. Moreover, women prisoners see that parole boards rarely release women convicted of spousal homicide; thus, those with indeterminate sentences perceive their sentences to be the equivalent of life without the possibility of parole. Indeed, life without the possibility of parole is not a rare prison term for convicted survivors. Contrary to the bulk of criminological research, in the cases of battered women who kill, it seems that being white does not grant its usual advantage. While the current method of sampling precludes generalizing findings to the overall population of battered women inmates, the figures reported here suggest that white women interviewees do not occupy a privileged position when standing before the bench for sentencing. Considering that the homicides in the current study are almost exclusively intraracial, as is the case for the overwhelming majority of battered women who kill, it could be argued that it is the victim’s color that determines the position of privilege in the criminal justice system. Women in the present study seem to be punished more harshly for killing a white male than for killing a man of color. Differential gender role expectations based on a woman’s race or ethnicity may provide another interpretation—perhaps our society finds it more inexcusable for a white woman to use violence.

Narrative Themes and Patterns

In-depth interviews provide important information on the experiences and perceptions of convicted battered women, from childhood, through abusive relationships, to the homicide event and the criminal justice response, and into prison. Common patterns and processes emerge in the analysis of in-depth interviews. Their own words illustrate the recurrent themes—themes that precede the homicide and themes that follow the homicide.

Minimizing. Despite a great deal of self-education, support group discussion, and reflection on the events that led to their incarceration, study participants repeatedly minimize the severity and significance of their maltreatment. When asked if the abuse continued during her pregnancies, a mother of two daughters answered in the negative. Later she comments that her husband continually hit her in the head throughout both pregnancies. How did she explain her earlier denial? “I didn’t consider it hitting, because it was above the neck!”

Forgetting. Along with the defense mechanism of minimizing, a woman held hostage sometimes forgets violent events. One woman describes memory gaps filled in by her children: “My attorney…talked mostly to my daughters. Most information he got, he got from them about the abuse, and incidents that had took place, because there were some that I didn’t remember.” Another woman tells of her daughter’s recollection: “She said, ‘Daddy was mad and threw the mirror and the mirror broke, and he had a knife at your throat.’ I didn’t even remember it…until she brought it up.”

Self-identity. Many respondents reported that, during their abusive relationships, regardless of severity, they did not consider themselves battered women. For many, the first awareness that they had been victims of domestic violence came as they attended support group meetings and heard others relate nearly identical events and reactions. “My idea of myself changed through a lot of different women [being] told the same things I was—fat, ugly, stupid, a slut, a tramp, a whore. I came to the realization that mine wasn’t unique. I could identify myself as a battered woman within about a year.” In contrast, there were some who disavowed being a victim of domestic violence out of fear: “Because if someone asked me, even on the phone, [he] would find out. I don’t know how he would find out, but I was scared.”

Police. In the majority of cases under examination, women sought help from law enforcement to stop their partner’s violence. While many improvements in police response have been made, all too often domestic violence victims are left to fend for themselves. In at least two cases, police had been on the scene earlier on the day of the homicide. One woman called the police “many, many, many times… He’d just tried to shoot me earlier…that afternoon. I called the police. ‘What do you want us to do, lady? It’s his house. We can’t get him out.’” Another reports: “police heard him threatening to kill me. His hands were on my throat and his knee on my chest when they broke into the house and pulled him off me. He was not arrested. He was walked around the corner and taken to his parents’ house.” Not all victims call on law enforcement. “I never called the police…He told me if I ever told he’d hurt me worse than I had ever been hurt in my whole life.” When law enforcement response appears continually ineffectual or women are too afraid to call 911, these victims of severe violence resign themselves to being killed or having to kill to survive.

Gender. Women who have been hurt and humiliated by male partners find it extremely difficult and, in some cases, impossible to disclose to male law enforcement, male investigators, male attorneys, and male psychologists the painful physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse that ends in homicide. A 25-to-lifer states, “I couldn’t talk to the lawyer or the police about the rapes and the sexual abuse because they were all males. Maybe if there had been a woman to talk to…” The gendered nature of domestic violence necessitates the consistent utilization of female officers, female attorneys, and female psychologists in the investigation and adjudication of battered women who kill.

Medications. A recurrent criticism of the jail experience of many battered women is the overprescription of psychotropic drugs—anti-depressants and mood-regulators, including such powerful chemicals as Lithium, Haldol, and Thorazine, often in combination with other drugs—in the absence of mental health history, testing, or diagnosis. While some women were successful in refusing medications in jail, all too often the drugs negatively affect the self-presentation of defendants during trial. Serving 17 years-to-life, a woman states, “I fell asleep seven times during the trial.” A woman with a graduate degree observes, “I was a zombie. They said I was cold and remorseless, not showing any emotion…the meds made me inarticulate.” Psychotropic drugs hinder the ability of women to contribute to and participate in their own defense and perpetuate the silence forced upon them by their batterers.

Trials. Mitigating and exculpatory information often does not surface during the homicide trials of abused women. The reputation of a violent man is protected at the expense of a just legal defense. Common observations include: “We couldn’t say anything about the threats. Every time we tried to get anything in, it was dismissed because [he] was the victim. And he was dead.” “[My attorney] told me I could never bring up anything about the abuse in the trial because it would give them a motive.” “During the penalty phase my attorney got a lot of people to testify on my behalf and afterwards, one of the jurors said that if she would have heard that during the trial she would have never found me guilty.” “They overlooked the abuse.” “The medical records were there but the only medical records that were actually entered as evidence were the statements from the emergency room where I had signed that I didn’t want to prosecute. I didn’t sign because I was afraid.” Thus, documenting abuse provides no guarantee that judges and juries will be made aware of the woman’s victimization.

In the cases under review, officers of the court systematically decontextualize the woman’s self-defense from her partner’s ongoing violence and threats. With alarming frequency, women are denied the opportunity to present their stories along with corroborating evidence. Thus, their trials produce distorted and inaccurate pictures of homicide events and women’s motives. As a result, battered women who kill to survive receive guilty verdicts and long, harsh sentences.


Over the past twenty years numerous improvements have been made in the response to domestic violence. Yet, as this research summary reveals, much more remains to be done. Findings from this research reveal the need for further changes in public policies and attitudes that affect battered women. Prosecutors need to prosecute aggressively abusive current or ex-husbands and boyfriends. Further, prosecutors must take into account the full circumstances of battered women who kill rather than detach the homicide from its place in the trajectory of abuse. ]

Women who kill partners to save their own lives and the lives of their children need to be seen for the survivors they are. They pose no threat to society. Thus, where the law allows, either charges should not be filed or prosecutors should opt for lesser charges. Many of these cases display glaring inequities in the adjudication process, thus suggesting the need for appellate attorney involvement—Maguigan’s analysis of appeals in 223 battered women homicide cases reveals an overturn rate of 40%, five times the overturn rate of other felony convictions. Parole boards must take into account the gendered dynamics of violent relationships and refrain from reenacting the flawed cases of battered women during parole hearings. Also, they need to examine the cases of battered women who kill and prepare the women for early release. All officials who come into contact with battered women need to participate in programs with qualified experts that raise awareness and knowledge on all aspects of domestic violence.

This research brings into question the wisdom or value of incarcerating women lacking in criminal histories, women who fully accept the values of the broader society, women who exhaust all known alternatives for safety before using deadly force for self-protection, women who are one-time, situational offenders. If convicted, these women make fitting candidates for community corrections programs. Most of the women in this study had dependant children at the time of the homicide, a reminder that prison programs must help maintain the mother-child bond as well as other family ties. To deprive already traumatized children access to their mothers is tantamount to legalized child abuse. If a woman is sent to prison and she has a high school diploma, she should have the opportunity to challenge herself intellectually with college-level courses—the boredom of prison life can be deadening. The voices of battered women survivors in this study demand to be heard. A women who is told, “If I can’t have you, nobody can” and who manages to survive that final deadly assault by her male intimate is the closest voice we have to the many women who do not live through that last violent assault. The more we learn from their lives, the more lives can be saved.


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