When the Virginia Tech shooter killed his first two victims, officials detained the girl’s boyfriend and did little else. After he killed another 30 people, officials admitted that they discounted the first two murders as a “domestic dispute.” Last week, in a column written before this incident, I noted that this euphemism is used to downplay acts of violence against women.
“Domestic dispute” is codespeak for the things men to do their “own” women, which therefore do not really concern the outside world. The distinction is artificial, because violence that begins at home frequently spills into the rest of the world. Consider, for example, Buckhead shooter Mark O. Barton. After he shot 9 people at his office, police later found the bludgeoned bodies of his wife and children at home. In fact, Barton may have killed before. Someone bludgeoned his first wife and mother-in-law to death years before the Buckhead killings. Barton was named a person of interest and investigated by police – but the prosecutor did not proceed with indictment. It makes you wonder if we could prevent some mass murders by taking “domestic disputes” more seriously.
The trial of a woman named Mary Winkler who shot her husband also made front page this week. When a woman shoots a man (or even a man’s tires, in the case of Miss America 1944), it always makes great headlines. “Tennessee preacher’s wife convicted” national headlines read.
Meanwhile, another trial involving another Mary never made front page. Mary Babb (no relation to this columnist) was the victim of many “domestic disputes.” Because the violence was male-on-female, most of us never read about it. “Witness describes fatal shooting,” was the local headline for her story.
Mary W. testified that her husband abused her physically, sexually and emotionally. Friends and relatives said her personality had changed since marrying the controlling preacher, and testified of a black eye and other visible injuries. Mary W. said he subjected her to sexual acts she found physically painful and morally repugnant. She was afraid to divorce her husband, who had sworn to kill her and cut her up into a million pieces if she ever crossed him. After he tried to silence their baby by covering her mouth and nose, Mary W. says she snapped. She does not remember pulling the trigger. She fired one blast from his own shotgun – the one he had threatened her with so many times – then she packed her three little girls in the car and fled.
On Friday, a jury found Mary W. guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The verdict recognizes that she shot her husband intentionally but without forethought. Though Mary W. claims the shotgun went off accidentally, pointing a gun at another person certainly suggests intent. If she was not in imminent danger, her actions can hardly be considered self-defense. Although the gun had been pointed at her many times in the past, one crime does not excuse another.
She should have gone to the police. She should have prosecuted Matthew Winkler for beating and threatening and sexually abusing her. She should have divorced him instead of shooting him. Right?
But let us consider the other Mary. Mary B. was also a victim of an abusive husband, and she did all the things we would have advised Mary W. to do. Mary B. filed for divorce. When her husband Thomas responded by threatening her with a knife, Mary B. sought to prosecute him for assault, domestic violence and criminal sexual conduct. Mary B. obtained an order of protection. She moved to another city with her three-year-old son and she found a job working for a newspaper.
While in jail, Thomas was so vocal in his threats against Mary B. that cellmates requested he be moved. In spite of the threats, and in spite of a prior sentence for assaulting Mary B., the judge let him out of jail on bond. Several months later, with the court date and charges still pending, Thomas found his prey again outside her place of employment. He rammed her Ford Explorer till it overturned. As Mary B. lay trapped on the ceiling of her vehicle, he shot out the window, and then killed her with one blast from a shotgun.
Two Marys faced controlling, abusive husbands. Mary B. did everything right. She did not fight violence with violence. She trusted the authorities to protect her. Mary B. is dead.
Mary W. fought back. Afraid that involving the police would result in her death, she took matters into her own hands. Mary W. survived. Because she survived, she is going to jail. We fail to protect those women who turn to the law for protection – and we prosecute those who protect themselves. Until judges stop letting abusive men go free, we should not condemn women like Mary W. who fight back. What other recourse do they have?
Divorce is a legitimate reaction. The longer an abused woman stays, the harder it is for her to get out alive. Since abuse gets worse with time, churches and counselors should not advise abused women to tough it out or give him one more chance. Yet filing for divorce is not sufficient – particularly if Georgia legislators succeed in prolonging the waiting period between divorce filing and finalizing to 120 days. Statistics show that the rate of marital homicide is highest during the separation preceding divorce. Some abusers continue to harass or physically attack their victims even after divorce. Mary B. had already filed for divorce. Divorce did not save her.
Orders of protection are useless. These are men who ignore social taboos and break existing laws every time they assault their wives. They are not going to be deterred by an additional rule on a piece of paper. Neither is a $30,000 bond (of which he pays just 10%) going to keep such a man from going after his prey.
Violent men are not stopped by un-enforced laws, restraining orders or fines. They can be stopped by prison bars. Until the American judicial system starts locking up abusive men, it should not lock up women who protect themselves.
-- Jeannie Babb
On the Other Hand